You’re probably already familiar with tracing your family tree. Learning about who your ancestors were and what kinds of lives they lived can help you understand more about yourself and your own life. But did you know that there’s another type of family history that could actually help save your life? As the CDC explains, a family medical history (sometimes known as a family tree of health) helps you learn your personalized risk factors for various chronic illnesses. Like a traditional family tree, it can’t be changed, but it can provide powerful information for you and your doctor to make better decisions regarding your health.

Why is it important to know family health history?

Your family health history pinpoints areas of particular concern regarding your health. Depending on your family history, your doctor might recommend specific courses of action. These may include, but are not limited to:

A non-standard health screening schedule

There are standard guidelines for every type of preventive health screening, from diabetes to depression. But if a particular illness runs in your family, your doctor might recommend getting screened sooner or more frequently than average. For example, most people should be screened for colon cancer at age 45. But if you had a parent or sibling develop the disease younger than 50, you may need to start getting colonoscopies at a younger age.

Physical fitness

You likely already know that eating right, getting lots of exercise, keeping your weight in a healthy range, and prioritizing sleep are essential to reducing your risks of chronic illness. But many people grew up in families that modeled poor health choices. You may first need to develop an understanding of the unhealthy patterns you learned as a child and how they impacted your family members’ health in the long run. Once you know where things went wrong, you will be better positioned to start making healthier choices for yourself and your kids.

Pregnancy considerations

If you are pregnant or planning for a future pregnancy, your family health history may lead your doctor to make specific recommendations to better support your pregnancy and give your baby the best chance at a healthy life. Potential warning signs in your family history include:

  • Congenital disabilities
  • Developmental disorders
  • Genetic abnormalities
  • Infant deaths before one year of age
  • Infertility
  • Multiple miscarriages
  • Newborn screening disorders

Depending on exactly what your family health history reveals, your doctor may recommend genetic counseling and carrier screening. Other options include specific supportive measures, such as increased folic acid consumption during pregnancy if there is a history of spina bifida in your family.

Genetics-based medicine

Genetics-based medicine is an exciting area of research that is still in its infancy. The goal of the National Human Genome Research Institute is to eventually use genetics to create personalized medical care. People with a strong family history of breast cancer, for example, can undergo genetic testing for specific gene mutations. Kids with a particular type of leukemia can be tested to determine the best chemotherapy dosage.

Over time, researchers expect that genetic testing will become more and more common throughout the field. Imagine a world in which you could be tested for an enhanced risk of virtually any disease. If you developed a medical condition, genetic testing could not only refine your diagnosis but even show which course of treatment would be best for you as an individual.

We’re not quite there yet, and there are some legal and ethical questions to address. How do we ensure equal access to genetics-based medicine for all? What do we need to do to protect patients’ genetic data from possible security breaches? Who’s going to pay for testing and treatment? Will patients face discrimination at work or from their health insurance company based on their genetics? All these questions and more are being worked through as part of the research process. Hopefully, their answers will move the medical field as a whole in the direction of better privacy, equity, and affordability.

Developing your family health history

Think of your family tree of health as any other one, except that this one should include only your first- and second-degree blood relatives. The Surgeon General has an excellent website: My Family Health Portrait. Or you can create your own digital or paper version. Whatever format you use, be sure to include the following information:

  • Your lineage. Some ancestral lines, such as Ashkenazi Jews, have a higher risk for certain chronic diseases, such as specific cancers.
  • Your blood relatives. Your first- and second-degree blood relatives include your parents, grandparents, siblings, children, and all of your aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. For anyone who has passed away, note their age at the time of death.
  • Significant diagnoses. Next, go through each person on your tree one at a time, and list any significant diagnoses they have received and the age of first onset. When you’re finished, carefully review your tree to look for patterns. Note any conditions that two or more people were diagnosed with, as well, and that appeared before the person turned 50.

The best way to get this information is simply to open a dialogue with your relatives. Start with the people you feel closest to, and ask about their health story with anyone else on the tree whose diagnoses they know. Then check in with the relatives you don’t know as well to confirm the accuracy of the information and fill in any missing pieces. If some of the people on your tree have passed away, you can combine data provided by living relatives with publicly available records such as death certificates.

And don’t worry if you can’t find every detail. The more complete your family health history is, the more accurately it can predict your risks. But even a lightly sketched-out family tree of health can provide some important clues for you and your doctor to follow.