A family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions that affect your family. It can help your healthcare provider determine your risk factors for certain diseases and health conditions. The risk for developing certain diseases can increase if you have a family history of those diseases.
You share genes with your family members. Genes are a part of your DNA that carry the information needed for your body to develop certain traits, but they can also carry the genetic information that can put you at risk of developing certain medical conditions. You inherit your genes from your parents, one copy of each gene from your mother and one copy from your father. The genes you inherit from your parents can help determine what you look like, the color of your eyes, and if your hair is curly or straight. Genes also affect whether you may be more likely to develop a certain disease or illness.
Most people have a family history of at least one chronic condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, or heart disease. If you can provide a family health history to your healthcare provider, they can help determine whether you need certain screening tests and at what age those screening tests should begin. For example, if you have a family history of colon cancer, your healthcare provider may begin screening for colorectal cancer earlier than the recommended age for colonoscopy, which is 50 years of age.
What are the Steps I Need to Take When Collecting a Family Health History?
- The first step in obtaining a family health history is talking to your family. Write down the names of your blood relatives from whom you should collect their medical history. The most important relatives to include in your family health history are your parents, brothers and sisters, and your children. Next, you may want to talk to grandparents, uncles and aunts, nieces and nephews, and half-brothers and half-sisters.
- Ask your relatives about which diseases they have had and when they were diagnosed. Questions can include:
- 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?
- Have you had any history of mental health illness?
- Do you have a history of substance abuse?
- 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?
- What kind of diet do you consume?
- Do you exercise, if yes, how often?
- Do you use any tobacco products?
- For relatives who have died, ask other family members about the deceased family member’s age and cause of death.
- Write the information down and be sure to periodically update it. To organize your family health history you could use a tool such as the Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait; this tool can allow you to easily share your information with your healthcare provider.
- Share the family health history information with your healthcare provider and other family members. Your family health history can give you an idea of your risk for chronic diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes, but it is not the only factor to consider. If you are concerned about diseases that are common in your family, talk with your healthcare provider at your next visit. A healthcare provider can evaluate all the factors that may affect your risk of some diseases, including family health history, and can recommend ways to reduce that risk.
- Having a family health history of a disease does not mean that you or your family members will get that disease. It is important that you talk with your healthcare provider about steps that you can take to lower your chances of getting the disease.
How Will My Family Health History Help My Healthcare Provider?
Your healthcare provider may use your family medical history to:
- Determine your risk of certain diseases.
- Recommend lifestyle changes such as changes in diet, smoking or tobacco cessation, or increasing physical activity to decrease your risk of certain diseases.
- Determine the type and frequency of certain screening tests and at what age the screenings should begin.
- Assess the risk of passing down certain conditions to your children.
Family health histories can be helpful in determining the risk of developing a disease but does not mean that you or your family will actually develop that disease. Other risk factors such as diet, tobacco use, and environmental factors may also increase your risk of disease. It is best to talk to your healthcare provider about your risk factors to develop the best screening and treatment plan for you.
Can Providing a Family Health History Have a Negative Effect?
Some people may be hesitant to give information about their family health history for fear of discrimination. For example, someone with a family history of diabetes and heart disease may not disclose this information for fear that they may not be insurable, or their health insurance will cost more because of the family health history. In 2008, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed in order to protect Americans from discrimination based on their genetic information in both health insurance (Title I) and employment (Title II). GINA helps prevent discrimination based on genetic information, which includes family health histories.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Family Health History: The Basics,” November 25, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_basics.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Family Health History for Adults,” November 24, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist_adults.htm
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Glossary of Terms,” March 20, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/genomics/about/glossary.htm#gene
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “My Family Health Portrait: A tool from the Surgeon General,” May 1, 2020, https://phgkb.cdc.gov/FHH/html/index.html
Mayo Clinic, “Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree,” September 4, 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/medical-history/art-20044961
MedlinePlus, “Why is it important to know my family medical history?,” September 21, 2020, https://medlineplus.gov/genetics/understanding/inheritance/familyhistory/