Your family health history shouldn't be viewed as a sad collection of the diseases and medical conditions that have plagued you and your loved ones over the years. Rather, it's a proactive document that could keep you healthy and alive longer. "It helps clinical teams build context and experience into the care of the patient," says Robert Bonacci, M.D., family medicine at Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, Minnesota. "Often, it can draw attention to care that may be different from routine care because there is a family history of a disease. It helps the clinical team to get to know the patient better and opens up conversations."
When a physician understands one's family history, they're better able to calculate their risk for developing these conditions. "Important things to know are cancers, diabetes, elevated cholesterol, hypertension, and more," says April McClish, D.O., another Mayo Clinic family medicine specialist, in Onalaska, Wisconsin. "In the case of cancers, depending on how many family members and how close in relation, doing genetic testing can be important in preventing some cancers such as breast and colon," adds Dr. McClish.
What's more, this health history doesn't just benefit you in the here and now—it will also be helpful for future generations, like your kids, their kids, and so forth. Here's what you should know.
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Bring it up at family gatherings.
You may be so used to doing research online, it may be surprising that the best way to get answers to your family health history is by having a conversation with your relatives. The next time you see your relatives at a barbecue or other casual get-together, don't just talk sports or politics—talk health! Be sure to write it all down in a journal.
Be prepared to face reluctant relatives.
Not everyone is willing to talk about their infertility challenges or bout with skin cancer, so how can you kindly persuade them to open up? "It's important to frame the 'why' as to why the family member is seeking the information," says Dr. Bonacci. "Typically the 'why' is to better understand what diseases the family has had in order to prevent or screen appropriately." Ultimately, though, it's the relative's decision to share or not, and this should be respected.
Branch out into your family tree.
Which family members should you include in this history? "At a minimum, you should know the health history of your parents, grandparents, and siblings [including half-siblings]," says Dr. McClish. "If there is cancer in the family, knowing aunts', uncles', and cousins' health history would also be important."
Gather the right information.
For each person you are cataloguing, the Mayo Clinic recommends you note basic facts (name, birthdate, sex at birth, ethnicity), then information on major medical conditions, mental health conditions, and age when each condition was diagnosed. Also, include lifestyle habits, such as diet, exercise, and smoking, and include alcoholism and other substance abuse. For women, cover pregnancy complications, including miscarriages, stillbirths, birth defects, and infertility. For each deceased family member, list the cause of death, age at disease diagnosis, and age at death. Update all of this information regularly and share what you've learned with your family and with your doctor.
All the info should be kept in one place. One free online tool is called My Family Health Portrait, offered by the U.S. Surgeon General.