Protect your health: learn your family’s history

Health discussion

Thanksgiving is a great time to gather with family and share food and memories. This year, try sharing your family health history, too.

Why should you learn about your grandmother’s diabetes or your brother’s cholesterol medication? Because researching and understanding the health history of your parents, grandparents, siblings, and other extended family can help you stay healthier and live longer.

Diseases such as heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and diabetes (as well as less common diseases like hemophilia, cystic fibrosis, and sickle cell anemia) can run in families.

You can’t change your genes. But if you are at risk, you can change unhealthy behaviors—like smoking or a poor diet—or your doctor may recommend additional screening tests to watch for early warning signs of inherited diseases.

According to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS), 96% of Americans say it’s important to know their family’s story. Only one-third of them, however, have researched and recorded their family’s health history.

That’s why in 2004, the Surgeon General, in partnership with HHS, declared Thanksgiving National Family History Day. The goal is to encourage all families to learn a little more about each other.

Tips for researching your family health history

Find a good time to talk and explain what you’re doing

It’s best to begin when your family is together and relaxed. If you can’t get everyone in the same room, pick up the phone or send them your questions through the mail or via email.

Start by explaining how it benefits everyone to know each other’s health history. Let them know exactly what you’ll be doing with this information and that you can make it available to them, as well.

Prepare your questions

Before you start quizzing your family members, have a list of discussion topics ready to keep your conversation on track. Some questions might include:

  • Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke?
  • How old were you when you developed these illnesses?
  • Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies, such as miscarriages?
  • What medications are you currently taking?

You should also ask questions about other relatives, both living and deceased, such as:

  • What is our family’s ancestry or what country did we come from? Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities? What illnesses did our late grandparents have?
  • How old were they when they died? What caused their deaths?

Try to get as much specific information as possible, but keep your questions short and to the point. If you need more details, ask follow-up questions—“why,” “how,” or “when.”

Respect your family’s feelings

Some people will not be comfortable sharing all, or even part, of their health history. Let them know that whatever information they want to share will be helpful and kept private, but be sensitive and don’t push.

Go online

The Surgeon General and HHS developed a web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” that helps you organize your family health history, share it with other family members, and print it out to give to your doctor. It takes about 15-20 minutes to build a basic family history.

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