Your family health history checklist or record should include as much information as possible about the health of your first and second-degree relatives. You can create your own tree or use the Surgeon General’s My Family Health Portrait website. Vital information to record includes:

  • Your ancestry. Some lineages, such as Ashkenazi Jews, are known to be at higher risk for specific cancers or other chronic illnesses.
  • Your relatives. List all your first- and second-degree blood relatives, including your parents, siblings, children, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and grandparents. Be sure to include their age of death if applicable.
  • Significant health conditions. For each relative, note any significant diagnoses they have received and the age at which the condition first appeared. Pay especially close attention to any diagnoses that appear in two or more relatives and any conditions that first showed symptoms or were diagnosed before 50 years old.

Why do I need a family tree of health?

Family history is a powerful predictor of potential future health problems. But knowledge is power. Creating a family tree of health can help you and your doctor pinpoint areas of focus and develop a personalized preventive plan to help lower your risks of developing a chronic condition. In particular, your doctor may recommend these steps based on your family health history:

Earlier or more frequent screenings for certain illnesses

Those at average risk for a particular health condition should follow the standard guidelines for preventive screenings. But those whose family tree of health indicates a strong history of a specific disease may need earlier and/or more frequent screenings for that condition. Examples include those with a family history of diabetes or a first- or second-degree relative who developed colon cancer before age 50.

Developing healthy habits

Physical fitness is one of the top ways to reduce your risk of developing nearly any chronic ailment. It includes such factors as nutrition, exercise, weight management, and sleep hygiene. But if you grew up in a family that made poor health decisions, understanding how those choices affected your family member’s health over time can help you start to unlearn childhood patterns.

Pregnancy planning

Your family tree of health can also be critical in helping you and your doctor understand how best to support a current or future pregnancy. Red flags to look for in your family history include:

  • Congenital disabilities
  • Developmental disabilities
  • Newborn screening disorders
  • Genetic conditions
  • Infertility
  • Multiple miscarriages
  • Deaths of infants under one year of age

Your doctor may suggest specific measures, from carrier screening to increasing your intake of certain nutrients, based on what your family health history shows. This can reduce the likelihood of a difficult pregnancy and give your baby the best chance for a healthy life.

How to gather information for your family health history

The best way to gather data is to talk to your relatives. Start with the people you feel closest to, as they can often fill in many details about other relatives, but be sure to check with each person directly to ensure the information is accurate. For those who have passed away, combine personal stories from other relatives with publicly available records such as death certificates for a more complete picture.

Asking personal health questions can feel awkward at first, but most people tend to be supportive if you explain what you are trying to do. And a family tree of health is so vital for you and your close relatives that you may even be able to turn it into a group project. And that’s a win-win for everyone!

Of course, not everyone has access to their family history or relevant information. If you don’t, work with your doctor to use what you do know to your advantage.