Genomic Medicine Institute - Center for Personalized Genetic Healthcare

8 Tips for a Better Family Health History

grandmother and child

When you gather around the table with your family this Thanksgiving, donít just ask them to pass the mashed potatoes. Ask them about their health history.

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.

1. Find your familyís historian

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

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?

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.

4. If itís a taboo topic, ask in private

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

5. Tell them family history is empowering

In the old days, you couldnít 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.

6. Use free online tools and resources

The Surgeon Generalís 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.

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.

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

Once you gather your family health history, talk about it at your next doctorís appointment. Donít 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.

Cleveland Clinic Genomic Medicine Institute
9500 Euclid Avenue / NE50, Cleveland, OH 44195
Appointment line: 216.636.1768 or 800.998.4785
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