Discovering your family history can help you better understand your past and form more meaningful connections with family members now. But did you know that learning about your ancestors can also provide important medical information for you and your loved ones?
Many health conditions are passed down through families, including heart disease, certain types of cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and many others. Creating a family health history is one way to gather and record important medical information that can help you to:
- Recognize signs and symptoms early. Early detection and treatment can lead to better outcomes.
- Request screenings and tests targeted toward people at high risk for developing certain conditions.
- Choose to make lifestyle changes that lower your risks.
- Share the family medical information with your doctor, who may suggest other measures to keep you healthy and lower your risks.
Your family health history is something you can continue adding to and updating through the years. The most important thing is to get started!
Here are four steps to help:
1. Talk to your family members about health issues and medical conditions.
Starting conversations about health issues and medical conditions can sometimes feel uncomfortable because this information can be sensitive and private. Be sure to be respectful by finding a place where you can talk with your family members in private, and explain why you would like to know about their health. Ask permission to share any information family members give you—and then share only relevant facts and only when necessary.
Try asking some of these questions:
- I’d like to talk to you about health conditions that run in our family in order to put together a family health history. Would that be okay?
- Can you tell me about any health conditions or issues you have?
- I understand you have (name the health condition). Could I ask you some questions about it?
- At what age were you diagnosed with this condition?
- How did you find out you had it?
- How are you managing or treating your condition?
- Are you aware of other family members who have this disease or condition also?
- Do you have any other health conditions or know of health conditions others in the family have?
This information can be especially helpful if you are unfamiliar with your family’s racial heritage, because some diseases and conditions are prominent in specific races.
2. Find additional information in records.
Some people won’t be able to learn a lot about their family’s health simply by talking to their family members, either because that information isn’t widely known or because family members are reluctant to share. After talking to family members, you can turn to records to gather more information about your family’s health—particularly about relatives who have died.
A good place to start is with death records, which often include a cause of death. In early death records, you may find causes of death left blank, recorded as “unknown,” or described with non-specific phrases such as “childhood disease” or “old age.” Other records may list diseases unfamiliar to you, sometimes because we don’t use the same terminology that was used long ago. A little research can often help you find the modern terminology for these outdated names.
Other records, such as medical records, obituaries, and funeral home records, can include information about your family’s health too. Try searching FamilySearch's free records to find your family's records.
3. Record what you find.
Once you’ve gathered your family’s health and medical information, record it in a health history. Compiling the information can reveal significant patterns, and it also enables you to share the information more easily.
There are several ways to create a health history. Try using this PDF to get started.
TapGenes is another great resource for creating your family health history. TapGenes communicates directly with FamilySearch’s Family Tree, enabling you to import the people, relationships, and dates you already have in your tree to get started with your health history.
Once you compile information about your family health history, don’t forget to include what you have learned in your Family Tree in FamilySearch. Once you select an individual from your tree in FamilySearch and have their information on the screen, scroll down to “Notes” and click Add a New Note. You can include important health information in a new note so others can access it, but keep in mind that information for living people should not be shared.
4. Share your results.
Others in your family may be at risk for the same health conditions that you are. Because of this, it’s important to share what you’ve found with your family members so they can benefit from your research as well. You should also let your doctor know what you’ve learned. If you created a report in step 3, consider giving your doctor a copy of it.
This holiday season, while you are spending time with family, consider gathering health information. In fact, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving Day to be National Family Health History Day! It could be the first step to a longer and healthier life for you and your family members.
For more information on starting a health history, visit these sites:
- Family Health History, Center for Disease Control and Prevention
- Family Health History Toolkit, Utah Department of Health
- Does It Run In the Family?, The Genetic Alliance