8 Tips for a Better Family Health History

At your next gathering, gather health history

Family portrait

When you gather around the table with your family this Thanksgiving, don’t just ask them to pass the mashed potatoes. Ask them about their health history.

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November is Family Health History Month, and the holidays are the perfect time to gather information you and your doctors need to craft a roadmap for preventing disease. Use these tips to make sure that map is accurate and complete.

  • grandmother and child

    1. Find your family’s historian

    Most families have at least one great storyteller — a grandfather or an aunt who knows all about the family’s past. Identify that person, and ask him or her to give you details about medical conditions that are common in your family.

  • notepad

    2. Ask the right questions

    Ask questions and take notes. The more information you gather, the more a doctor or genetic counselor can help you search for red flags. Here are a few questions to ask: What diseases have family members had? How old were they when they had the diseases and when they died? Have several family members had the same diseases or conditions?

  • family drawing

    3. Start close, then branch out on your family tree

    First-degree relatives such as your parents and siblings are the most telling when it comes to family history. Gather information about them first. Then expand your search to include second-degree relatives such as grandparents, aunts and uncles.

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  • Whispering

    4. If it’s a taboo topic, ask in private

    In many cultures and families, asking about diseases and sickness is taboo. If that’s true for you, talk to your relatives about health history in private. They may open up more in private than at the family table.

  • Hands joined

    5. Tell them family history is empowering

    In the old days, you couldn’t do much about your family health history but wring your hands and worry. Now, because of research, you can take action. Genetic counselors and genetic physicians can evaluate you for risks, diagnose diseases early and seek appropriate treatments or preventive measures. Family health history can and should be empowering.

  • Mother and daugher at computer

    6. Use free online tools and resources

    The Surgeon General’s Family Health Portrait tool is a great place to start. You can use it to enter information, print your history and even update it over time. The American Society of Human Genetics also offers fact-sheets, tools and other resources.

  • Filed records

    7. If you are adopted, ask what records are available

    Some adoption agencies keep detailed family health histories and make them available to adoptees, but others do not. We hope this changes in the future so that everyone can access helpful health information, but for now, it is worth asking what is available.

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  • Doctor's visit

    8. Take what you learn to a doctor or genetic counselor

    Once you gather your family health history, talk about it at your next doctor’s appointment. Don’t let your doctor just file it away, either, because it should be used to guide your care. If you have concerns, ask to be referred to a genetic counselor, an expert who can help you make smart decisions about preventing and treating disease.

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Charis Eng, MD, PhD

Charis Eng, MD, PhD is founding chairwoman of the Genomic Medicine Institute and founding director of its Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare. Dr. Eng is a global leader in cancer genetics and cancer genomic medicine.
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