The Family Medical History: An Important Healthcare Tool

When you or your loved one first sees a doctor, you will typically be asked for a family medical history. This is no mere stroll down Memory Lane: a family medical history contains a wealth of information that can help guide medical practitioners in caring for their patient.

Why are family medical histories important?

Many diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, blood clots, arthritis, and certain types of cancer, “run in families.” Diseases and chronic conditions can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors, and families tend to share both.
Informing medical practitioners of any health conditions your relatives have or had enables them to recommend ways for you to reduce your own risk of the condition. It also allows them to keep an eye out for symptoms of specific problems, should they begin to appear.

What information is included in a family medical history?

In order to give the fullest, most helpful medical history, it is important to know:

  1. If any of your blood relatives, including siblings, parents, grandparents, and aunts or uncles have or had chronic conditions, such as diabetes, or serious illnesses, such as cancer or stroke
  2. The age of onset of any problems, if applicable
  3. The age and cause of death, if appropriate

How do I get all the information required for my family medical history?

Most people don’t have all the pertinent health information about their families at their fingertips, so it’s important to do research, especially if you suspect there is a family history of medical problems. This research might be a simple as asking family members —especially older family members, who are often treasure troves of family history — or it might require researching family medical records and death certificates.

How do I store my family medical history in the most useful form?

The Surgeon General has released a web-based tool, “My Family Health Portrait,” that helps you collect and store family history. One of the major benefits of this tool is that it allows you to send your partially completed medical history to other family members, who can fill in some of the blanks. The information is not shared with anyone other than the people you choose.
You can access this tool here.
Whether a condition that runs in your family is caused by nature or nurture, you share much in common with your family, and it’s in everyone’s interest to have as complete a family medical history as possible. Taking the time to gather accurate information is an important part of keeping yourself, and your loved ones, healthy.

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