Creating a Family Medical History

Remember charting your “family tree” – creating a giant map of all your ancestors? Creating a family medical history tree is similar, except instead of birthplaces, your tree will track family diseases, medical conditions and allergies.

Here are some helpful tips from physicians on compiling your medical history:

Why is my family’s medical history important?

“When illnesses / diseases occur it is usually a combination of nurture - i.e. what we do to our bodies…sedentary lifestyle, smoking, drinking, drug use, etc. - and nature, [which is] our genetic make-up,” says Dr. Davis Liu, “Although we can control our environment and our behaviors, we can't control the genes we are given.”

A medical family history gives clues to our genetic past: diseases, medical conditions, allergies, causes of death and so forth. However, if a relative had a stroke, heart attack or diabetes, for instance, don’t panic! Dr. Liu says if a family member(s) had a serious condition, it does not necessarily mean you will have the same issue. Family medical history may help spot potential health problems even before they happen.

“There's a lot of preventative work that can be done if we see the patterns coming through the generations,” says Dr. Raeann Hamon, a professor of human development and family science at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa. For example, if a woman knows that three of her grandmother’s sisters had breast cancer, she may have extra incentive to get regular mammograms.

And since genetic diseases can often skip a generation or two, Dr. Hamon says that we may not realize that a disease runs in our family until we see it on paper.

What family members’ histories are the most important?

Start with your immediately family – your parents, your siblings and your grandparents. Dr. Liu says that this is a good start for most doctors.

“Extended family information is typically needed when seeing a geneticist who is trying to understand the entire family tree to determine, for example, the likelihood of certain medical problems that may be inherited,” says Dr. Liu.

How should I ask my family members about their medical history? Where do I start?

"Start asking questions at family gatherings like Thanksgiving," says Dr. Hamon. "Some people don't mind, but other family members may be more reluctant, so you need to respect the boundaries. If you let family know you're doing this to improve the next generation's health, they're usually more willing to participate."

Don't know where to start? Here's a list of questions from The American College of Medical Genetics to get you started:

  1. Are there any health problems that are known to run in our family, or that close relatives have been told are genetic? If so, what are these conditions?
  2. Is there anyone in the family who had cancer, heart disease, or other adult-onset health problem at an early age, such as between 20 and 50?
  3. Does/did anyone in the family have mental retardation, learning problems, or have to go to special school?
  4. Have there been any early deaths in the family, including stillbirths, infant deaths, multiple miscarriages, or shortened lifespan?
  5. Have any relatives had extreme, unexpected or reactions to medications or therapy?

Along with the answers to these questions, write down the following information for each family member:

  • Name
  • Date of Birth
  • If deceased, list age and cause of death
  • Their age of a diagnosis or disease onset
  • Major surgeries and for what
  • Ongoing diseases, medical conditions

“Try to be as precise as possible,” says Dr. Liu. “For the case of cancer, if the person knows what the primary cancer was (i.e. breast cancer) is better than just ‘cancer that spread to the bones’, which isn’t as clear.”

Looking to keep a record of this information? Want to create a visual family medical tree map? There is a handy online program called My Family Health Portrait that’s free and easy to use.

Developed by the U.S. Surgeon General, this program allows you to enter in information about your family history and then you can save the details on your computer and also print out your results in a family tree map form or list format.

Have additional questions? Talk to your physician or call your doctor's office to see what information would help them the most.

Remember ...

The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional medical advice. These tips are from doctors, nurses and people who have shared real-life advice; always check with a doctor or appropriate professional you trust before making any health care-related decisions.

Thank you ...

A special thank you to the industry professionals, doctors, nurses, patients and families who gave us their time, insight and real-life advice.

Reviewed 5/2009