Grandparents have a wealth of information about family’s health stories and may be the only resource for stories of deceased family members. “Knowing the health stories of family members can help identify your child’s risk of developing certain serious diseases and health conditions,” says Dr. Lisa Gaw, pediatrician at Texas Children’s Urgent Care Westgate.

Why Family Health Stories are Important

Family health stories form the basis of your family health history– a record of diseases and health conditions that have affected your family members. Just as genetic information determines your eye color and how tall you are, inherited genes can increase your risk of some health problems. “Certain types of cancer and heart disease can be inherited through genetic traits,“ says Dr. Gaw. Other health problems that run in families include high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, and depression.

How to Collect Family Health Stories

Follow these steps to collect family health stories from your grandparents:

  1. Tell your grandparents that you are interested in talking about your family’s health stories. Explain the importance of knowing what diseases and health conditions have affected family members. This information may help improve the health of family members, both now and in the future. Set a specific date and time for a “family health stories” meeting
  2. Let your grandparents know the type of information you would like to gather. Send them a copy of the Health Story Profile Card (see sidebar). Ask them to think about what chronic conditions or hospitalizations family members have had.
  3. Draw a basic family tree of three generations to use as a reference. Include grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, children, and grandchildren. Some people also include half-brothers, half-sisters, and cousins.
  4. Write out any specific questions beforehand. Consider what you already know and what details are missing. For example, you may know that your grandmother’s brother died of a heart attack, but you may not know how old he was. You should ask about behavior, lifestyle, and environment that could have affected health.
  5. Make a copy of the Health Story Profile Card for each family member. As you talk with your grandparents, use a separate card to collect each person’s health story. Use the back of the card to note additional facts.
  6. Listen carefully to the information your grandparents provide. If your grandparents are reluctant to share some details, don’t insist. Just gather as much as you can. If some information isn’t available, don’t guess at it. That could be misleading during evaluation.

What to Do After Gathering Family Health Stories

After you complete the Health Story Profile Cards, sort them by generation. Then arrange the cards side by side on a flat surface. Using different color highlighters, markers, or crayons, circle diseases and health conditions that occur in more than one family member. For example, if six family members have had a stroke, you would circle “stroke” in pink on each card. The goal is to identify patterns of health conditions or disease that have occurred more than once in your family. Also look for medical conditions that presented earlier than normal, such as a relative who had a heart attack in her 40s.

Talk to your doctor about risks that you have identified. You can’t change what’s in your family’s medical history, but you can take steps to decrease your own risk of getting a disease. “Past medical history, family history, and surgical history help us understand a person’s risk for certain conditions,” says Dr. Gaw. “This information aids in diagnosis, assessment, and management of many health conditions.”

Your doctor may recommend replacing specific unhealthy behaviors, such as poor nutrition or lack of exercise, with healthier lifestyle choices. Early screening for certain diseases may be used to identify problems and inform a treatment plan.

Share the information with your grandparents and other family members so that everyone can benefit. Keep the Health Story Profile Cards updated when family members are diagnosed with new diseases and health conditions.


Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer based in Austin, Texas.

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