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Family Health History

If we exercise, eat well, and keep healthy habits, we set ourselves on a path towards good health. But no matter what we do, good health is never a guarantee. There are things we can’t control that influence our health, including our genes.

What color is your hair? How tall are you? These are the questions we typically ask when talking about genes. But the way we look or how we behave is only part of the story. Our genes play a significant role in our health, particularly when it comes to chronic disease. Many common diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, and breast cancer, can be passed down from generation to generation.

And though we can’t predict if we will suffer from something our parents or grandparents lived with, we can be proactive and prepared by understanding our family health history.

What is a family health history?

A family health history is a record of our family’s health. It paints a picture of who we are, where we come from, and how our relatives live and have lived. But, most importantly, it provides us with insight into chronic diseases found in the family so we can be more aware of our health as we continue to age.

A record of our family health history also serves as a valuable resource for our health care providers. If our doctor knows ahead of time that we’re at risk for colon cancer or diabetes, they will be able to incorporate that risk into their care plan. By understanding our family’s health, we can take the steps needed to remain healthy ourselves.

How do we create a family health history?

The best way to create a family history is to ask your relatives what they know about their health and the family’s health. 

You can gather this information in several ways, but the most convenient would be to ask them at family get-togethers, such as birthday parties, weddings, or memorial services. Having everyone in one space can make the process move quickly. If you don’t have any events coming up, use your search for the family’s health history as a reason to invite a relative out to dinner!

If your family lives in another part of the world, you can also use social media to reach out. Send a quick message to a loved one on Facebook, Instagram, or WhatsApp to start the conversation.

Tip: Be careful when you send personal medical information through social media. There’s a chance that someone could see it that shouldn’t!

What to ask your relatives

Now that you’ve decided to investigate your family’s health history, you may be wondering, “well, what do I ask?” Thankfully, there are several resources out there that can help you brainstorm questions.

For example, the CDC Family Health History Checklist recommends the following questions to ask your relatives:

  • Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  • Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke?
  • How old were you when each of these diseases and health conditions was diagnosed?
  • What is our family’s ancestry – from what countries did our ancestors come to the United States?

The NIH’s Guide to Family Health History (Una guía para el historial de salud familiar) also features many questions to ask your relatives, categorized by relationship and stage in life. Keep in mind that the questions may vary depending on what you already know about your family.

How to ask about health history

We recognize that asking your family for their health history may be a difficult conversation. It’s normal to feel shy about asking others about their health, and it’s likely that your relative will feel uncomfortable, too.

Even though it can be an awkward conversation, it’s a conversation you need to have. Remember that the answers you receive today will provide you with the information you need to stay healthy tomorrow and on.

To ease any concerns you may have, below are a few ideas to help you start the conversation, keep it focused, and make it a comfortable experience for you and your loved one.

Let them know why you’re asking

If you jump right into asking health questions, you may offend your relative. Instead, let them know ahead of time why you’re interested in hearing about their health history. Explain that you’re thinking a lot about your health as of late. Mention that you’ve recently learned that many chronic diseases are hereditary, and you’re curious to know about the family’s health. Also, make sure to let them know that any information they provide will only be used to help you better understand your health.

Ask questions that get to the point

You want to get as much information as possible from your relatives, but you also want to make sure everything they share is relevant to what you’re asking. Whenever possible, try to avoid questions that are open for interpretation. For example, instead of asking, “what’s your health history?”, ask something more specific, such as, “do you, or anyone else in the family, have a history with cancer?” By asking direct questions, your loved one will be more likely to provide you with the answers you’re looking for, not the answer they think you want.

Never ask for more than what you need

It’s very helpful when your relative is willing to share their health history with you. But remember that they don’t need to share everything, especially in regards to highly personal and sensitive information. Unless it’s essential to understanding your family’s health history, try not to ask for specifics. If your relative says that they aren’t comfortable sharing, respect their wishes. Everyone has a right to their privacy.

What to do with the information you’ve gathered

Now that you’ve collected all the information you need to understand your family’s health history, you don’t want to lose it! It’s a good idea to record everything you’ve learned and keep it in a safe place where you can easily access it.

Many health care providers, including CCI Health & Wellness Services, offer a service for viewing your medical information online  known, as a patient portal. Most patient portals will allow you to directly input your family’s medical history for your doctor’s records. Ask your health care provider about their patient portal for more information. If you’re a CCI patient, you can access our patient portal here.

It’s also wise to maintain a written record of your family’s health history. CCI Health & Wellness Services offers a form that you can print and fill out as you continue to learn about your family (disponible en español.) Be sure to bring it in with you for your next doctor’s appointment and provide it to the office for their records.

Finally, remember that your research into your family’s health history is ongoing. As time goes on, more information on your family’s health will become evident. It will be as important to note everything you learn in your later years as it is right now. You will one day need to pass the information on to your children, providing them with the same knowledge you used to empower yourself!