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Understanding your family’s health history can help your providers create personalized health plans for you. This is especially important in minority communities who experience higher rates of chronic health conditions.

Contributed by Marcus C. Germany, MD | Department of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics

Providing a thorough family health history allows health care providers to create a personalized plan to reduce your odds of developing certain conditions. It can even influence the types of health screenings you may need, outside of standard recommendations.

Importance of Family Health History

Knowing your health history can help providers assess your risk of developing various illnesses such as:

  • Type 2 diabetes
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Stroke
  • Single gene disorders (sickle cell, cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, etc.)
  • Most types of cancer (colon, breast, prostate, etc.)

Knowing your health history is particularly important in minority communities. After all, minority communities in the United States experience higher rates of heart disease, stroke, cancer, asthma and diabetes. Also, minorities are more than two times as likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, while Black women are more than three times as likely to die.

Reasons for Lacking Family Health History

There are many reasons an individual may not know or be able to access their family health history, including:

  • Limited availability of accurate family health history because of a family dynamic, such as adoption.
  • Family has a general mistrust of the health care system, leading to a lack of screenings or even annual visits.
  • General discomfort of discussing health topics in the family.
  • Family may not feel comfortable talking about stigmatized medical conditions, such as HIV.
How to Start a Record of Family Health History:

The best way to start or restart an accurate recording of family health history is to get information from relatives on both sides of your family, including parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

Some questions to answer include:
  • Do we have heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol or other health conditions that doctors commonly ask about in our family?
  • Have any of our relatives had cancer? If so, what type and how old were they when they were diagnosed?
  • Have you or any of our relatives had other serious diseases? Or a stroke?
  • How old were you when your conditions or diseases were diagnosed?
  • What do you know about our family’s ancestry? What countries did our ancestors come from?
  • How old were our relatives when they passed away? What were the causes?

Additionally, you can encourage others in the family to offer their personal history or try and dedicate time to discuss this topic with certain family members. Finally, ensure you speak with younger people in your family about the necessity of health information sharing within the family so the family health history can be shared for generations to come.

While you’re gathered with your family for the holidays this year, be sure to take the time to ask them about their health history.

Knowing the illnesses your parents, grandparents and other relatives have had can help you and your doctor work together so you can prevent them or get earlier treatment.

Click the link below for a printable list of questions to guide you through asking about your family’s health history.

Family History Questions [PDF]

Marcus C. Germany, MD

Department of Internal Medicine-Pediatrics