The holiday season is the perfect time to collect information from relatives about your family health history. “Knowing your family health history 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. Although most people understand the importance of knowing their family health history, only about 30 percent have tried to collect and organize the information.

What Is a Family Health History?

The family health history includes information about diseases and health conditions that run in your family. “For example, certain types of cancer and heart disease can be inherited through genetic traits,” says Dr. Gaw. In addition to genes, other factors that influence health are environment, behaviors and lifestyles.

How Do I Get Started?

The US Surgeon General suggests taking time to prepare before beginning health history discussions with relatives. For more details, see the US Surgeon General’s Family History Initiative.

  1. Make a list of relatives to include in your family health history. The most important family members are your parents, followed by your brothers, sisters and children. Other family members to include are grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and half-brothers or half-sisters. You also may want to talk to great uncles, great aunts and cousins. And don’t forget yourself.
  2. Write questions beforehand. Consider what you already know and what details are missing. For example, you may know that your uncle died of a heart attack, but not know how old he was. Ask about environment, behaviors and lifestyles that could affect health. See the sidebar for example questions.
  3. Make a family health history tree. Dr. Gaw recommends including the following basic information for each person:
  • Date of birth
  • Physical medical conditions and age at diagnosis
  • Mental health conditions, including any substance abuse issues and age at diagnosis
  • Age and cause of death for deceased relatives
  1. Decide where and how to collect the information. Try to anticipate how specific relatives will respond to these questions. Some may be comfortable talking in a group setting, while others may prefer a private conversation. Contact distant relatives by phone or email.

Tips for Gathering Information

Before you start asking questions, ensure your relatives understand the importance of a family health history. Dr. Gaw says, “Knowing your family health history can help you and your doctor create a proactive, preventative healthcare plan.” Being aware of risks and taking action can save lives. Offer to share your completed family health history so everyone in the family can benefit.

Take notes or record the conversations to make sure you capture everything. Don’t be surprised if some relatives are reluctant to share information.

What to Do with the Information You Gather

Organize the health history information into a useable format. The American Medical Association recommends using My Family Health Portrait, an online tool found at Don’t forget to update your family health history as new information becomes available.

Discuss your family health history with your own doctor, as well as your child’s pediatrician. If you identify any diseases or health conditions that run in your family, discuss options to decrease risk. “Knowing your family medical history can give you and your doctor a great foundation for creating a preventative health plan. Knowing what conditions to screen for can help catch and cure disease early,” says Dr. Gaw.

Sample Questions for Gathering Your Family Health History

Health Problems

– Tell me about any health problems, such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease or stroke. What about high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, or vision or hearing loss? What surgeries have you had?

– How old were you when you developed this illness or condition?

– What health problems did your parents have? Your grandparents? Other relatives?

– How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?


– Have you or your partner had any problems with pregnancy, such as miscarriages?

– Were any of your children born with problems or birth defects?

Learning/Developmental Problems

– Does anyone in your family have a learning problem, such as dyslexia or ADHD?

– Does anyone in your family have developmental disabilities or conditions known to be associated with developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or cerebral palsy?

Mental Health Problems

– Has anyone in the family had mental health problems, such as depression or anxiety?

– What about substance abuse issues with alcohol or drugs?

– What relatives have experienced dementia or Alzheimer’s disease?

Environmental Issues

– Were you exposed to any environmental hazards, such as asbestos or lead?

– Were there any environmental issues in your work, home or community that had a negative impact on your family’s health?

Behaviors and Lifestyle

– What is your occupation?

– What are your typical activities? For example, do you have a desk job or an active job? Do you spend your free time watching TV or exercising?

– Tell me about your diet. Describe a typical breakfast and dinner.

– Do you get medical and dental care on a regular basis?

Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.

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