Know Your Family History

Family history puzzle

What if a stroll down memory lane could save your life? When it comes to family history, it can.

Knowing funny stories about your relatives makes for great fun at family gatherings — but knowing that three of your ancestors had diabetes or that your grandmother had breast cancer at an early age may help you and your children live longer, healthier lives.

A basic family history is a cornerstone of personalized healthcare.  When you and your doctor know your background, you can tailor preventive care for conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, and cancers of the breast, colon, and prostate.

A family history (or pedigree) is a diagram of where you came from. It cuts across generations — your ancestors, you and your children. A proper family history includes the ages at death for each relative, as well as the diseases and conditions they had during their lives. Using a family history, a doctor or genetic counselor can cut your risk of disease. For example, if your family has a history of diabetes, you can modify your diet and other lifestyle factors to lower your risk.

So where do doctors get all this information about your family? From you, of course.

How to paint a family portrait

There are several ways to gather info for your family history:

  • Face-to-face. This is the traditional method. A doctor or genetic counselor will ask you questions about your relatives and record your information into a diagram.
  • On the computer. You can enter your data from your home computer before an appointment. Doing this allows a clinician to preview the document before your appointment. The Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait website is one of the most comprehensive tools for building a family history. If you prefer to start with a paper template, you can download the form to do so.
  • At the family reunion. “Gradual compilation” is a more passive approach but can still be highly effective. Many patients find that family gatherings are an excellent venue for finding out exactly who died from what, when and how long they lived. In fact, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving to be National Family History Day, so you can get a helping of family pedigree along with your sweet potatoes.

Once you have a good family history in place, don’t be afraid to talk to your physician about it. A family history can be a springboard for discussions about your health. You also should make your findings available to other family members who could benefit from them.

Advances in medicine and technology continually guide the medical community to new heights, but the best tool for understanding genetic risk is the simplest. Taking your family health history seriously could be the best thing you do for yourself and the generations following you.

More information

Prostate Cancer Testing and Treatment Guide – Free Download

How do you keep your family health history? Let us know in the comments below.

Download My Family Health Portrait


Kathryn Teng, MD

Kathryn Teng, MD, is Director of the Center for Personalized Healthcare and leads Cleveland Clinic’s efforts to integrate personalized healthcare into standard practice.
  • Jeffrey A Crawford

    I’m 46, overweight, snore like a buzz saw and am sure I have some apnea. However, I sleep like a rock, rarely have any difficulty getting to or staying asleep, and wake rested, usually without an alarm. Why should I be concerned?

  • finkette61

    So can we get assistance for those of us that don’t have the “normal” sleep issues? How about us on the other end of the spectrum? I’m a night owl and can sleep for 10 -12 hours on the weekend. Problem is I have to work the normal 8-5 during the day . Ugh! Going to bed @ 2:00 am every night and able (NEEDING) to sleep for hours on end is not good. Been this way all my life. Other than being able to retire and sleep all day, what is my answer?

  • Carlene Byron

    People get shamed BY their doctors. How many other people have been treated as if we are mental incompetents when another doctor sees our list of psych meds? I actually had an orthopedist PANTOMIME his explanation of why my sister’s doctor was wrong about a health syndrome that runs in our family.

  • Carlene Byron

    Also: TBIs don’t increase your risk of getting mental illnesses. It’s more accurate to say that the symptoms of TBIs are like the symptoms of BP and there’s much more money available to treat BP than TBIs. But if you treat a TBI with BP meds, you can turn a competent professional into a drooler. I’ve seen it happen. I’d like to see the funding stream shift so TBIs can get proper treatment.