3 Steps to Uncovering Your Family’s Health History

You might have your mom to thank for your wide hips, or your grandfather for your peculiar nose. But there’s something else for which you can thank (or curse) your ancestors — your health.

The keys to your health risks — including heart and vascular disease — may lie in the roots of your family tree. Health experts recommend that you research and document your family’s health history in order to better understand, and plan to deal with, potential cardiovascular problems.

There are three familial factors that can influence your risk of heart disease: genetics, environment and lifestyle. Genetics may be the only factor that can’t be controlled; however, the other two factors can also have a strong impact on your health. That’s because families tend to have the same values (like sedentary versus active lifestyles), eat the same types of foods, and share the same environment (for example, a smoke-filled home).

An accurate family history will go back three generations and include health issues from every possible relative including siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and cousins. Collecting such data can be time-consuming and difficult given that many families live miles apart and many don’t openly share medical issues. Experts advise that you take your time and break the project down into small pieces, but also, to begin as soon as possible.

There are many ways to collect such information. Here’s a three-part guide to gathering, documenting and sharing your family health history.

An accurate family history will go back three generations and include health issues from every possible relative.


  • Gather information from both sides of your family: mother’s and father’s
  • View death certificates of family members
  • Check genealogy websites
  • Have honest conversations with family members
  • Ask or look for the following information:
    • The type of heart disease diagnosed
    • Other related health problems, like obesity and diabetes
    • Age at diagnosis
    • Age at passing
    • Cause of death
    • Lifestyles, beliefs and traditions that may have affected heart health, including smoking, types of cooking, physical activity, etc.
    • Whether any genetic testing has been done, and if so, what were the results


Once all the information has been gathered, type it up neatly and save it, either electronically or in paper form (or both).

Sharing3 Steps to Uncovering Your Familys Health History - In Content

  • Send copies to all of your family members, in whatever format they’re most comfortable with (electronic or print).
  • Tell them to share it with their doctor at their next annual exam.
  • Bring a copy to your next annual exam and share it with your doctor.

The U.S. Surgeon General offers an excellent online toolOff Site Icon to help you document, save and share your family health history.

Your family health history is a priceless tool. With this information, you and your doctor can begin to assess whether the diseases that afflicted your relatives are a concern for you. Some of the findings might require early screenings for specific problems, which could end up saving your life.

Remember to continue to update your health history, and make sure your children have access to it when the time is right. This can help ensure longer, healthier lives for generations to come.

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