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Get familiar with your family health history

Older and younger woman holding teacups and smiling at each other.

Learn what info to gather and how to put it to use.

Brown eyes. Dark hair. A delightful little dimple here or there.

It's fun to see which physical traits get passed from one generation to the next in your family tree. But you can inherit something less fun from your relatives too: a higher risk for certain health conditions.

That's especially true if multiple family members had a disease or were diagnosed at a young age. But that's not the end of the story. Knowing your family health history can help you and your doctor take steps to protect your health.

Why it's worth looking into

If a relative had diabetes, heart disease or cancer, that doesn't mean you'll definitely get it too. Other things besides genes—like our health habits and environment—matter as well.

But it's better to know if there's a chance you may be at higher risk. That way, you can take steps to lower your risk or find the condition early, when it may be easier to treat.

For example, if certain diseases run in your family, your doctor may want you to get screened for them earlier or more often than usual.

Or knowing your family history risk might provide that extra push to make healthy changes, like exercising regularly, following a healthy diet or quitting smoking.

Have a chat

The best way to learn your family health history is to talk to your relatives. Family reunions and holiday get-togethers can be a good time to swap info. Try these five tips to get the most from the exchange:

1. Give people a heads-up first. That will give them time to decide what information they're willing to share and track down relevant details. If your relatives are uncomfortable talking about their private health issues, you can remind them how important it may be for the health of everyone in the family. But it's up to them whether to share things like medical records and other private info.

2. Collect as much information as you can. Focus on your parents, siblings, grandparents, children, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests asking questions like:

  • Have you had any chronic or serious health conditions, like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, stroke or cancer?
  • How old were you when you were diagnosed?
  • If older relatives have passed away, how old were they when they died? And what did they die of?
  • What is our family's ancestry? (Some inherited conditions are more common in people from certain ethnic groups or from certain parts of the world.)

3. Offer to be the record keeper. You can keep track of what you learn on paper, in a computer file or in an online tool like My Family Health Portrait. If everyone is on board, share copies with your relatives.

4. Share it with your doctor too. Even if you weren't able to put together a full picture for everyone in your family, share what you do know. Every little bit of information helps. Together you and your doctor can come up with a screening schedule and a plan to help manage any extra risks you might have.

5. Don't set it and forget it. Revisit your records regularly. Update them—and your doctor—with new information as your family's health changes.

reviewed 5/20/2019

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