Creating a family medical history

You’ve got your father’s smile, hazel eyes like your sister, and your grandmother’s curly hair. However, while your genes may confer some of your best traits, they can also bring some less-welcome inheritances — namely, a higher risk for certain health conditions.

Your odds for developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer may be higher than average if these conditions run in your family. By looking for clues in your family’s health history, you may be able to identify risks for future illness and perhaps be able to reduce them, says Dr. Jennifer Haas, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. Preventive strategies started early can reduce your risk.

Gathering important details

When collecting family health information, there are certain items you should prioritize, says Dr. Haas.

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“It’s most important to ask about cancer and chronic diseases,” she says. These include diabetes, heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and Alzheimer’s disease. These are conditions that have a genetic component, so if others in your family have them, you may be more likely to develop them.

Whenever possible, it’s also important to get specifics about your relative’s condition. For example, if someone in your family had cancer, you’ll want to know where in the body cancer started. “Many types of cancer spread to the liver,” says Dr. Haas. But that doesn’t mean the person had liver cancer.

Also, ask how old they were when they were diagnosed. “It is important to know age of onset. If a condition or cancer started when a family member was young, then an individual may benefit from starting screening or prevention earlier than generally recommended,” says Dr. Haas.

Alert your doctor about any illnesses that affect more than one family member and at what ages they were diagnosed, says Dr. Haas.

Tools and tips for gathering your family health history There are a number of tools and strategies that can help you pull together a comprehensive family medical history. The U.S. Surgeon General created “My Family Portrait,” (, which is an online resource designed to help you create a family health history. It can become an ongoing library for your family.” The nice thing about it is that people can all orient the information to themselves. So, everyone’s tree is different but they can share information with others,” says Dr. Jennifer Haas, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “This might be helpful if people are hesitant to disclose their information.”Another option is using a medical history binder that family members can contribute to and share. This can be done on paper or electronically using a Google document, says Dr. Haas. These tools may also be used to help you to track who is biologically related and how closely — for example, half-siblings versus full siblings, she says.If you’re adopted, have a small family, or don’t have access to your biological relatives, there are still ways to get a glimpse into your genetics.” Consider using a DNA testing kit to look for common genetic disease markers or to connect with biological family,” says Dr. Haas. However, keep in mind that these decisions can be complicated and should be considered carefully, she says.

How to collect the information

When gathering your family medical history, start with immediate family members: your parents, brothers, sisters, and half-siblings. From there you can branch out to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews.

“It is important to realize that it is only blood relatives that share genetic risk, although non-blood-related relatives can share exposures to things like secondhand tobacco smoke, which can also influence risk,” says Dr. Haas.

While it’s likely fairly easy to identify whom you might want to ask about family history, the challenge often comes in the asking itself. While some family members might be open and willing to disclose personal information, others may view a request like this as highly intrusive. Approach the issue with sensitivity, and respect people’s differences.

Below are some tips that can help ease the process.

Use gatherings as an opportunity. Family gatherings around the holidays can offer a good opportunity to broach the subject because everyone is in one place at the same time.

Choose a designee. Assigning a point person to collect the information can be a helpful approach. “Families often have a person who is the ‘historian,’ which is a good place to start,” says Dr. Haas.

Try different methods. People should decide whether the best approach is to speak with the family as a group or individually. Some people may be more honest one-on-one, says Dr. Haas. “Every family is different,” she says.

Also, consider whether you should approach people in person, or if it’s better to call on the phone or send an email. Your strategy may vary based on the individual. Some people might prefer a face-to-face conversation, while others would rather talk on the phone or send the information in an email or using an online form.

Be clear. Always explain why you are asking. If people understand that the information may benefit others in the family, they may be more willing to share, says Dr. Haas. It may also help if you explain that you will share health information from others with them so that they can better assess their own risks.

Protect personal privacy. Ask permission to share someone’s health history with other family members. Respect each person’s privacy unless you have explicitly discussed sharing the information.

Bible verses for today’s meditation and inspiration: Matthew E. McLaren

I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. Psalm 119:7 NIV

Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart. Psalm 119:2 NIV

Truly I tell you, if anyone says to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and does not doubt in their heart but believes that what they say will happen, it will be done for them. Mark 11:23 NIV

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer. Psalm 19:14 NIV

But be very careful to keep the commandment and the law that Moses the servant of the Lord gave you: to love the Lord your God, to walk in obedience to him, to keep his commands, to hold fast to him and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul. Joshua 22:5 NIV

Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. Psalm 119:111 NIV

Your beauty should not come from outward adornments, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 1 Peter 3:3-4 NIV

Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23 NIV

As water reflects the face, so one’s life reflects the heart. Proverbs 27:19 NIV

May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed. Psalm 20:4 NIV

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward each person according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve.” Jeremiah 17:9-10 NIV

You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. Jeremiah 29:13 NIV

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