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Explore Your Genes: Create a Family Health History

You have your grandmother's eyes, your father's nose, and your mother's quick wit. But will you also get Aunt Linda's cancer and Grandpa's heart disease? A family health history can help you assess your risk—and take action to prevent diseases you're prone to developing.

Does it run in the family?

Families share more than last names and traditions. Genetics can contribute to the risk of many common diseases, including:

  • Heart disease

  • High blood pressure

  • Some cancers

  • Diabetes

  • Stroke

If a family member developed one of these diseases at a young age, you and your children may be at even higher risk. Rare conditions also travel through generations. These include hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia.

How to get started

A complete family health history should include three generations. Start by making a list of all your relatives. The most important people to include are immediate family—parents, siblings, and children.

For those whose health history you don't know, pick a relaxed and quiet time to talk about it. Explain what you are doing and why. Make a list of questions beforehand so you don't miss anything. Ask:

  • Their age and date of birth

  • Whether they have any chronic conditions, such as heart disease

  • About other serious illnesses they've had, including cancer or stroke

  • The age at which they developed these conditions

  • Whether they've had problems with pregnancy or childbirth

  • What other family members passed away from

  • Where in the world your ancestors are from

  • Whether anyone in the family has had birth defects or learning disabilities.

Sharing the history

You can write this information down or record it using a free online tool, such as the U.S. Surgeon General's My Family Health Portrait. Share your family health history with your doctor and your child's doctor. A recent study found three-fourths of doctors would find a computer-generated health history useful in caring for a patient.

Your doctor might make different recommendations for you based on your family history. For instance, if heart disease runs in your family, you might have the most to gain from heart-healthy behaviors like eating right and exercising. In addition, you might choose to get screened more often for a disease like breast cancer if your relatives had it.

These documents can be especially helpful for children. Chronic diseases like diabetes and heart diseases are rare in kids and teens. But symptoms may appear early in those with a strong family history. If your child's doctor is aware of genetic risks, he or she can be on the lookout for these signs and take them seriously.