The Importance of Your Family Medical History

Knowing your family’s medical history is a simple, low tech and free way to determine your health risks. Families share genes, environment and lifestyle, all of which can provide clues to why certain medical conditions run in the family.

Understanding your family history can also help you determine your risk of passing certain conditions onto your children, identify other family members who could be at risk of developing certain diseases, and diagnose a health condition that might have otherwise gone unnoticed or could have been hard to diagnose.

Family Medical HistoryHow to Gather Your Family’s Medical History

A pedigree is the scientific term for a complex record of family medical history that helps doctors and patients predict their heritable risk of diseases like cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.

To create your pedigree, collect the following on each family member:

  • Date of Birth
  • Sex
  • Ethnicity
  • Physical and Mental Health Conditions, including substance abuse
  • Age of diagnosis for each condition
  • Age of death
  • Cause of death
  • Pregnancy complication, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects, infertility
  • Lifestyle habits – diet, exercise, tobacco use

You’ll want to go as far back as your grandparents and include all of your siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews on both your mother’s and father’s side of the family. Compiling info from both of your parents’ families is important because breast cancer genes can be passed on from the father’s side, for example, and an inherited condition can exist on your father’s side that causes miscarriages. Most people don’t realize these things.

It’s also important to note the age when each family member’s health issue began, and keep in mind that diseases that come about before the age of 50 tend to have a strong genetic component. Race and country of origin are also important because certain health issues are more common in certain ethnicities.

When researching the medical history of family members from a long time ago, keep in mind that the terms they used were different than what we use today, and since medicine was less advanced, it was common for doctors to list the cause of death as “unknown.” Prevention magazine has a helpful list of what some of the most common terms used long ago may mean. Click here to view the list.

Did you know: In 2004, the US Surgeon General declared Thanksgiving to be known as National Family History Day. The hope was that as we all gather with our family over Thanksgiving dinner, that we would also share important health information with the family. You can create a Family Health Portrait using the tool provided by the Surgeon General’s office.

What To Do Once You’ve Compiled Your Family Medical History

  • Consult with your healthcare provider to determine what your risks are so that you can create a plan of action to help you prevent those diseases. Some things your provider may suggest include quitting smoking, eating a healthier diet, getting consistent exercise, taking a dietary supplement, etc.
  • Your physician may suggest that you get some screenings, such as blood tests or genomic testing to further determine your level of risk. More frequent screenings may also be suggested to keep an eye on your greatest risks.
  • Share your family history with other family members. You could save their life!