Recording Your Family Medical History

Why Record Your Family's Medical History?

Your personal medical records will be vitally important when it comes to tracking illnesses and medical problems you have or may develop through your lifetime. Among the components of your medical records will be your family medical history.

Did your grandfather suffer from Alzheimer's disease? Does Great Aunt Emma have problems with psoriasis? Did your mother have breast cancer? Does your brother have heart disease?

Tracking diseases and conditions suffered by blood relatives can help you reveal any risk factors you may have. This type of information tracks your genetic makeup, and may be helpful for diagnosing problems, and may help you prevent the development of such problems by knowing what habit changes may be needed now.

Once you've assembled the information you need, share it with your doctor at your next check-up. Your doctor will want to keep a copy of it and will likely find it very helpful, if not right away, then sometime in your future.

What Relatives Should Be Included?

In general, you will find the health information about blood relatives, back two to three generations, from both your mother's and father's families to be helpful to you. These relatives are:

  • parents
  • siblings
  • half-siblings (because they share a parent with you)
  • grandparents
  • great-grandparents
  • nieces
  • nephews
  • aunts
  • uncles
  • sons
  • daughters

Even if these relatives have died, their health information may be important to you.

Do not include information about anyone not related to you by blood, including your spouse's family, or step-parents or step-siblings or children. Since they are related only by marriage, their health history will not directly affect your health.

What Types of Information Should Be Collected and Recorded?

There are two keys to the information you will collect. First, you are looking for relatives who may have genetic health problems you or your children may have inherited (or, in the case of children not yet born, may inherit when they are.)

Second, you are looking for trends that may follow you. Does your father have high cholesterol? You may develop high cholesterol, too. Is your mother a twin? If twins run in your family, you might be predisposed to have twins, too.

There are hundreds of genetic disorders which get passed through the generations. If one of these disorders affects a baby from the time it's born, such as cystic fibrosis or Down syndrome, chances are you already know about it and can record it alongside that relative's name right away. It may be information you should have prior to having a baby.

Other problems, however, develop during a person's lifetime and may be triggered by certain habits, or by the environment. Knowledge of blood relatives with these kinds of medical problems may keep you from developing those same problems because you may be able to avoid the risk factors. For example, if you know your mother's family has been prone to heart disease, you'll know to keep your cholesterol and blood pressure under control, and to review those problems with each checkup.

What Specific Diseases and Conditions Should be Recorded?

Here are some of the diseases and conditions to track. They represent the most common health problems that may emanate from one's family. It is not a comprehensive list.

  • ADHD
  • alcoholism
  • allergies
  • arthritis
  • asthma
  • bipolar disorder
  • many cancers including breast, colon, prostate, and ovarian
  • dementia and Alzheimer's disease
  • depression
  • diabetes
  • glaucoma
  • hearing loss
  • heart disease
  • high blood pressure
  • high cholesterol
  • learning disabilities
  • miscarriage or toxemia
  • osteoporosis
  • stroke and aneurysm
  • surgeries (including cesarean section)
  • vision loss

A more comprehensive list may be found through the National Institutes of Health.

What if your relative is healthy and there are no health or medical challenges to record? Lucky relative! And, for your purposes, that's exactly what you should record -- the person's age, and the fact that there are no problems to record. Update the information later if that situation changes.

Has a relative already died? If you can learn how that person died, especially if it is from one of the diseases or conditions listed, then be sure to track that, too. Included should be any cancers, and what body system the cancer started in (not just the places it metastasized (spread) to.)

You may find, too, that older relatives, or even those who have already died, may be reported as having a disease or condition that was historically called something different from what it's called today. Tuberculosis was called "the consumption." Atherosclerosis was called "hardening of the arteries." You can always refer to a list of old disease names vs what they are called today, or simply input the name you record to a search engine to find the more modern label.

What Additional Information Should Be Tracked?

While it's not as vital as knowing about a family member's genetic tendencies, other types of information may also be useful to your doctor:

  • It's wise to record each relative's age and gender. Include the relationship that makes him a blood relative (your nephew is the son of which sister?).
  • How old was the family member when first diagnosed (or had symptoms of) one of the listed problems? How old was he when he died? Did he die of that listed health problem?
  • What kind of build did he have? Slender? Overweight? It might give a clue about his habits and why he developed one of the listed problems.
  • Were there additional risk factors such as smoking? A job that exposed him to toxins?
  • What kinds of immunizations did the family member have? As time goes on, this becomes more important. It can also be quite interesting to see what older family members may have contracted that were prevented by immunization in later generations. (A good example is polio.)

Adopted? No Relatives? Some Ideas for Recording Family Health History

If you have no access to family records, or if your relatives aren't around to help you, it will be much more difficult to put together a family medical history.

  • If you have a sibling that you know about, record what you can.
  • If you have access to your adoption records, even with no identification, there may be clues. For example, if information about the birth itself is available, you may be able to determine if your mother needed a c-section.
  • If you have lost all your known relatives but know of family friends, they might have some useful information, even stories told by your relative.

What Tools Help You Record Your Family Health History?

US Surgeon General's Family Health Portrait
Screenshot from the Family Health Portrait. US HHS

If you are comfortable creating computer spreadsheets, or even just a word processed document, you can create a table to house your collected information (list all the relatives down one side, the health and medical conditions across the top, and put checkmarks in the ones that intersect).

If that's more than you want to tackle, consider using the Family Health Portrait, from the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It helps you track all necessary blood relatives, plus charts people and diseases for you. The information gets saved to your computer.

Keep Your Family Health History Records Updated

Your family medical history will never be 100 percent complete. But at each stage, it will be useful. As time goes on, keep it updated as best you can. When new family members are born, add them to your list. As you hear of a blood relative's new diagnosis, or if you know someone has died, you'll want to reflect that in your history.

Among the most important steps is to share your document(s) at each major stage. Your siblings will find it helpful, and as your children get older, they will realize what a gift you have provided to them.

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