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Creating a family health history

A family health history is a record of a family's health information. It includes your health information and that of your grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, and siblings.

Many health problems tend to run in families. Creating a family history can help you and your family be aware of possible health risks so you can take steps to reduce them.

What Is a Family History?

Many factors affect your health. These include your:

  • Genes
  • Diet and exercise habits
  • Environment

Family members tend to share certain behaviors, genetic traits, and habits. Creating a family history can help you identify the specific risks that influence your health and your family's health.

For example, having a family member with a condition such as diabetes may increase your risk of getting it. The risk is higher when:

  • More than one person in the family has the condition
  • A family member developed the condition 10 to 20 years earlier than most other people with the condition

Serious diseases such as heart diseases, diabetes, cancer, and stroke are more likely to run in families. You can share this information with your health care provider who can suggest ways to reduce your risk.

What Should Be Included in Your Family Health History?

For a complete family medical history, you will need health information about your:

  • Parents
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and Uncles
  • Cousins
  • Sisters and brothers

You can ask for this information at family gatherings or reunions. You may need to explain:

  • Why you are gathering this information
  • How it will help you and others in your family

You can even offer to share what you find with other family members.

For a complete picture of each relative, find out:

  • Date of birth or approximate age
  • Where the person grew up and lived
  • Any health habits they are willing to share, such as smoking or drinking alcohol
  • Medical conditions, long-term (chronic) conditions such as asthma, and serious conditions such as cancer
  • Any history of mental illness
  • Age at which they developed the medical condition
  • Any learning problems or developmental disabilities
  • Birth defects
  • Problems with pregnancies or childbirth
  • The age and cause of death for relatives who are deceased
  • Which country/region your family originally came from (Ireland, Germany, Eastern Europe, Africa, and so on)

Ask these same questions about any relatives who have died.

How Will a Family History Help You and Your Family?

Share your family history with your provider and your child's provider. Your provider can use this information to help lower your risk for certain conditions or diseases. For example, your provider may recommend certain tests, such as:

  • Early screening tests if you are at a higher risk than the average person
  • Genetic tests before you get pregnant to see if you carry the gene for certain rare diseases

Your provider also may suggest lifestyle changes to help reduce your risk. These may include:

  • Eating a healthy diet and getting regular exercise
  • Losing extra weight
  • Quitting smoking
  • Reducing how much alcohol you drink

Having a family health history can also help protect your child's health:

  • You can help your child learn healthy diet and exercise habits. This can reduce the risk of diseases such as diabetes.
  • You and your child's provider can be alert to early signs of possible health problems that run in the family. This can help you and your provider take preventive action.

When to Create Your Family History

Everyone can benefit from a family history. Create your family history as soon as you can. It is especially useful when:

  • You are planning to have a baby
  • You already know that a certain condition runs in the family
  • You or your child develops signs of a disorder

Alternative Names

Family health history; Create a family health history; Family medical history

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Document your family's health history. CDC.gov Web site. Updated August 29, 2014. www.cdc.gov/features/familyhistory. Accessed December 19, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family health history: the basics. CDC.gov Web site. Updated August 29, 2016. www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_basics.htm. Accessed December 19, 2016.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Family health history for adults. CDC.gov Web site. Updated August 30, 2016. www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_adults.htm. Accessed December 19, 2016.

Rubinstein WS. Family history and health risk assessment. In: Ginsburg GS, Willard HF, eds. Genomic and Personalized Medicine. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Academic Press; 2013:chap 26.

Review Date 12/10/2016

Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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