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Discovering your Family's Health History

Knowing the health history in your family tree provides a connection to your past, but is also key to reducing future health risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Family members share genes, behaviors, lifestyles, and environments that together may influence their health and their risk of chronic disease.” Most people have at least one chronic disease, such as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes in their family health history- this means that they could be more likely to develop that disease as well.

So the main question becomes- how do you even begin to collect your family's health history? And what information should that include? You may not be able to change your genes, but when armed with the right information, you can change unhealthy habits and learn more from the appropriate screening tests if necessary. Here are some suggestions for how to discover more about your family's health history:

  • Ideally, your family health history should include health information about each of your immediate family members (parents, siblings and children) and blood relatives (uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents).
  • Begin with asking your relatives- perhaps during a family gathering or holiday. Share the importance of knowing your family health history for disease prevention. Respect those who do not feel comfortable sharing or are uncomfortable sharing in a group setting, and provide alternative methods—such as an email.
  • Don't forget to include information such as their profession, lifestyle habits and medical conditions. The CDC provides this great checklist to help!
  • Additional resources for gaining information can include obtaining permission from a relative to request their medical records, or finding obituaries and death notices in the local paper that may list the cause or age of a relative's death. Local newspapers, funeral homes, religious institution records and local Department of Health locations are good places from which to research or request these records.
  • What if you were adopted and don't have access to your birth family and relatives? The CDC also shares some suggestions for how to build your health history here: https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_child.htm#tips

Learning more about your health history and finding disease early can often help lead to better health long term.