How to Build a Family Health Tree

Recording your family health history is easier than you think, and just might save your life

Despite all the instruments at a doctor’s disposal, your pencil might be the best tool for protecting your health. By keeping a record of your family’s health history, you’re offering your healthcare provider a window into your possible future. Are you at an increased risk of having a heart attack? Does Alzheimer’s run in your family? Should you be concerned about depression when you hit 35? “A family health history helps us determine if you have a familial disposition for a disease, if you need screening, if we should do testing or if lifestyle changes are necessary,” explains Lynn Holt, M.S., C.G.C., director of the genetic counseling program at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Health Professions. “If you do have a strong family history of diabetes, for example, maybe we need to screen you earlier or regulate your diet.”

But because we think it’s too time consuming, we don’t want to invade our relatives’ privacy or we just don’t get around to it, many people never complete a family health history. “Less than 1 percent of people in this country have a well-documented family history in their medical records,” says William A. Knaus, M.D., chair of public health sciences at the University of Virginia School of Medicine. “But no one has more to lose from a poorly constructed history and more to benefit from getting the information in their record correct than you.” The good news is that creating a family health record could take as little as 30 minutes of your time, and could make a world of difference at your next doctor’s appointment. Here’s how to do it.

Pick Your Method

Map Out Your Members

Take note of three generations’ worth of relatives. “That’s your brothers and sisters, your parents and their siblings, and your grandparents and their siblings,” explains Holt. He might not be your typical go-to person for family information, but don’t forget to get some 411 from your dad. “He contributes 50 percent of your genetic information,” says Holt. “A lot of women don’t realize that they can inherit a risk for breast and ovary cancer from their father’s side of the family.”

Cover the Basics

Be sure to ask whether there was any cardiovascular disease (atherosclerosis, stroke, heart attack), diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease or mental illness in the family. For relatives who have passed away, you want to find out from surviving loved ones not just their cause of death, but also when they fell ill. “Getting cancer in your 30s is different than getting cancer in your 70s,” says Holt. “An early onset makes us suspicious there might be an inherited predisposition.” You may feel like you’re prying, but specifics are important. “It’s not enough to just know you have a history of cancer in the family,” explains Knaus. “You need to know what type of cancer. Breast? Ovarian? Colon?” If you have a particular cause for concern—and trouble getting information—a genetic counselor can help you uncover death certificates, medical records or other helpful medical data.

For relatives who are still alive, ask what chronic health conditions they’ve had to deal with or even what medications they’re on. “Sometimes people are on a drug, but they don’t know exactly what they’re taking it for,” explains Angela Golden, D.N.P, president-elect of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. “But you can tell your healthcare provider the name of the drug and they’ll know.”

Don’t Know a Word? Look It Up Later

Your grandmother may mention that her sister had “a touch of sugar,” but what she means is that your great aunt had diabetes. Take note of whatever unfamiliar phrase your relatives offer you and decode them with your doctor later. For example:

  • “Nerves” could signal depression or mental illness.
  • “Birth trauma” might mean mental retardation.
  • “Dropsy” could be used to describe someone who suffered from seizures.
  • “Low blood” could mean sickle cell anemia.
  • “Stomach cancer,” which is rare, often really means colon or a gynecological cancer instead.

Use What You Learn

Your healthcare provider isn’t the only person who needs to get a look at your family health history and determine what patterns emerge and which are significant. You should consider sharing it with your siblings, since you’re all in the same boat. And take it with you to your child’s doctor appointment. “If they have a grandparent who’s had chronic lung disease or a heart attack, then that’s an opportunity for me to talk about why smoking isn’t a good idea,” explains Golden.

What’s more, there’s a chance at saving a life. “It’s always a big headline when a child had a sudden cardiac death on the athletic field,” says Golden. “It’s also another reason to do a family history.” If the healthcare provider performing your child’s sports physical knows there’s a history of sudden cardiac events, they’ll do more screening and testing before giving your kid the green light to hit the field.

And remember, your tree never stops growing. “At every annual visit, I update it with my patients,” says Golden.

Chime in below! What's keeping you from building a family health tree?

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