Family Health History: How to Begin Tracking

Family Health History: How to Begin Tracking

Father and daughter lying on the floor and painting family tree.

Do you know how long your mom has had high blood pressure? Or the age when your grandfather was diagnosed with arthritis? These pieces of family health history are important to ask about.

We know some health conditions run in families. That’s why having a documented family health history can be an important part of your medical record, as well as your child’s. Patterns of certain conditions in your family can help you and your family’s healthcare providers assess health risks.

Here’s how to start your family health history:

1. Choose a method for tracking your information

Your family health history is different from your genealogy. When gathering a family history, family relationships are critical rather than names (i.e., father instead of John Smith). So are birth and death dates, age at diagnosis of major medical conditions, cause of death, and ethnic background.

You can keep detailed notes on paper, or in a document on your computer. Here are a few tools to help:

  • This fact sheet from the National Society of Genetic Counselors can help you document information about the medical conditions of family members.
  • This guide instructs you on how to draw your family tree.
  • My Family Health Portrait, from the Surgeon General, is an online tool to help you easily and efficiently record your family health history. This tool will create a family tree (or pedigree) from the information you enter, and also allows you to link the information you enter with family members if you choose. Because family history is personal and confidential, this website doesn’t save your information, but does allow you to save it to your own computer.

2. Start with the basics

Begin with your own health details. Include any medical conditions you have or previously had, and the age at which you were diagnosed. Then branch out to your parents and siblings, with the goal of collecting similar information from each of them. You may find that some information is unavailable (due to death, loss of records, or other matters beyond your control). That’s OK. Partial family history information is better than none.

3. Aim to go back three generations if possible

If you can, create a family health history that goes back three generations. Try to assemble as much information as you can about those who are related to you by blood: your siblings and half-siblings, parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, first cousins, and children.

4. Know this will be an ongoing process

When starting your family’s health history, be prepared to work on it over time. Begin conversations with your relatives as you are able. Ask targeted questions so you get the information that will be most helpful. Death certificates, autopsy reports and hospital medical records can reveal useful information, though they are not always necessary for assessing certain health risks.

It may take several conversations with various family members to compile this information. And know that you could face challenges along the way: It might be difficult to communicate with a family member you don’t know very well. Or you may encounter a particularly private individual who might not want to share certain information. It can help to reassure family members your intentions to only share the information you’re collecting with your healthcare providers.

If you haven’t already started talking with your family about your health history, I highly recommend doing so. Having this information at your next doctor’s appointment just might be as valuable as the check-up itself.

Read Next: Part 1 – Family Health History: Why Track It?

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Erin M. Miller, MS, LGC

About the Author: Erin M. Miller, MS, LGC

Erin Miller is a licensed genetic counselor with the Cincinnati Children’s Heart Institute. She specializes in cardiovascular genetics. Her research interests include the impact of clinical genetic testing and cardiac screening recommendations on family members, and the penetrance of cardiovascular disease in families.

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