National Family Health History Day happens each November on Thanksgiving. In 2020, it’s November 26. The idea is that when families get together (this year, due to COVID-19, that may be a small gathering or virtual celebration via video chat), they can carve the turkey and carve out some time to share any updates to the family’s medical history. This history can have a big impact on everyone’s individual health. But whether you make this a priority around the pumpkin pie in November or any other month of the year, the takeaway should be that knowing your family’s history is important.
Your doctor can use your family history to develop a complete picture of your health and any risk factors. Together—you can then work on ways to reduce that risk. It’s why you may have to answer a long list of family history questions when you join a doctor’s office as a new patient, or why your doctor asks for any updates to your history as part of your annual wellness checkup.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to collect your family health history—and why it matters.
What is family health history?
Let’s start with the basics. Simply put, family health history is a record of the health conditions in your family. You all share genes and you may also share behaviors—such as exercise and diet habits. Many families live in the same area, so they have contact with similar things in the environment. Your family health history includes all of these things, and they all can affect your health.
How should I collect my family health history?
This can be easy or somewhat challenging, depending on your family dynamics. Right now, you may know a lot or a little. Experts recommend using family gatherings as a time to talk about health history if you aren’t extremely close with your extended family. You can also ask relatives to share historical information like medical history forms and death certificates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you collect health information about your:
- sisters and brothers, including half-siblings
- aunts and uncles
- nieces and nephews
This information should include major medical conditions, age when they were diagnosed, causes of death and age at death (if relevant) and ethnic background. Keep these details updated regularly and always share what you’ve learned with your family members and your doctor. If you prefer digital records to paper, you can use the Surgeon General’s helpful web-based tool My Family Health Portrait to keep track of the information. It lets you save, print and continue to update your information all in one place—and also includes details about your potential risks.
What if I only know part of my family health history?
No worries. Collect what you can and share with your doctor what you do know. Even if it’s not 100% complete, anything you share can still help your doctor determine if you need any screening tests and when to start.
If you’re unsure of your family history or were adopted or conceived via sperm or egg donation, there’s still helpful information available to you from the CDC. Find it here.
Why is family health history so important?
Even though it’s not a super fun topic to think about, most people have a family health history of at least one chronic disease—like cancer, heart disease or diabetes. If you have a close family member with one of these diseases, you’re more at risk for it yourself. This is especially true if more than one close relative has (or had) the disease or if they got it at a younger age than usual.
How can I use my family health history to improve my own health?
Once you have your family health history, you can put it to work for you. Because even though you can’t change your genes, you can modify your lifestyle behaviors or get earlier or extra testing to help protect you. For example, if heart disease runs in your family—healthy habits like regular exercise, quitting smoking or eating better can make a huge difference when it comes to your risk. Here are some common risk factors that run in many families and how knowledge of them can help keep you healthy:
- Did your grandma, mom or sister have breast cancer? Ask your doctor if you should schedule a mammogram earlier than normal and follow the recommended list of ways to reduce your risk.
- Do your parents or siblings have diabetes? Talk to your doctor about screening options available to you and reduce your risk for Type 2 diabetes with these five tips, including considering a diabetes prevention program.
- Did your parents, siblings or grandparents have colon cancer before age 50? Colon cancer is very treatable with early detection. Again, early screening or more frequent screening may be something your doctor will want to schedule for you, combined with some extra lifestyle changes.
So even though you can change your jeans, but not your genes—remember that it’s important to take time to collect your family health history and share it with your doctor at your next visit.