Creating a Family Health History

How to Create a Family Health History

Talk to Your Blood Relatives

The first step in creating a family health history is to talk to your blood relatives. The most helpful information comes from 'first-degree' relatives -- parents, brothers and sisters, and children. Information from 'second-degree' relatives -- nieces, nephews, half-brothers, half-sisters, grandparents, aunts, and uncles -- as well as less close blood relatives can also be used.

Questions to Ask

To start, make a list of relatives to contact. See if there are any existing family trees, charts, or baby books. Important questions to ask your blood relatives include the following.

  • What is your age or date of birth?
  • Do you have any chronic conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, or high blood pressure?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke? (If you know of a specific disease or illnesses in your family, ask about them, too.)
  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?
  • Have you or your partner had any problems with pregnancies or childbirth?

Other questions to ask are:

  • What countries did our family come from? (Knowing this can help because some heritable diseases occur more often in certain population groups. Also, different diets and living environments can influence the risks of developing certain diseases.)
  • Has anyone in the family had birth defects, learning problems, or developmental disabilities, such as Down's syndrome?
  • What illnesses did our late parents or grandparents have? How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

Using the 'My Family Health Portrait' Tool

Free print and online tools can help you create a family health history. One tool is 'My Family Health Portrait' from the U.S. Surgeon General. It helps organize your family health history information. The following instructions describe how to use the print and online versions of this tool.

You can download and print out the print version of 'My Family Health Portrait' seen here and use it to record information about your family's health. Once you fill in the information, you can keep it for your records, share the completed form with your health care professional, or share it with family members. You can also refer to it as you enter information into the online version of 'My Family Health Portrait.'

Click here for the print version of 'My Family Health Portrait.'

The online version of 'My Family Health Portrait' seen here will organize your information into a chart that resembles a family health history tree. Information that you submit to the online version of 'My Family Health Portrait' stays private. It is not shared with the government or anyone else. It is best to gather information about your family health history beforehand so that you will have it easily available when you need to enter it.

Click here for the version of 'My Family Health Portrait' that is maintained online.

You can also use ‘My Family Health Portrait’ to calculate disease risk based on your family history for certain common disorders like diabetes and colorectal cancer.

You can also just use a blank sheet of paper to draw your own family health portrait.

Handling Questions from Relatives

Your relatives will probably want to know why you want information about their health. You can explain that knowing what diseases run in the family can help family members take steps to lower their risk. These steps might include certain lifestyle changes, medical tests, or choices of medicines. Offer to share your health history when it is done. Encourage relatives to create their own health histories. The online version of ‘My Family Health Portrait’ makes sharing family history with relatives easy.

Finding the Right Time to Talk

It's important to find the right time to talk about family health. Family get-togethers like holidays, vacations, and reunions might be good opportunities. Some people may prefer to share health information privately, in person or by telephone. You can also contact family members by mail or e-mail. Be sure to take notes or record the conversations with a tape recorder or video camera to help you remember.

Dealing with Gaps in Information

Don't worry if you cannot get complete information on every relative. Some people may not want to talk. Others may be unable to remember information accurately. That's okay. Whatever information they can provide will be helpful.

To get reliable information about relatives who have died or who have mental health problems, you may have to talk to other family members. Death certificates, obtained from a state or county vital statistics office, can often confirm the cause of death. Funeral homes and online obituaries may also have this information.

If a Family Member is Adopted

What if you adopted a child? A family health history can help adopted children, but the information they can get might be limited. Adoptive parents and adoption agencies may have some health information about birth parents, but many states have laws that protect this information. A local health or social service agency may be able to help.

One alternative for adopted people is to start a brand-new family health history for the benefit of their biological children and grandchildren.

Keep the History Up to Date

As children are born and family members develop illnesses, add that information. It may take a little time and effort, but this lasting legacy can improve the health of your family for generations to come.