Talking to Your Family and Collecting Your History
Having a conversation with your family members is a great way to learn about your family’s health history. Family reunions and holidays (Thanksgiving is designated by the Surgeon General as National Family Health History Day) offer opportunities to talk to many relatives at one time to share stories and experiences. As you talk to your family members, you will want to write down the following information:
- Think about three generations of relatives. This means your parents, children, siblings, nieces/nephews, aunts/uncles, cousins, and grandparents. Include both biological and non-biological relatives, if known, as both genetics and shared environments/lifestyles influence health. Record ages if possible; if deceased, record age at death if known.
- Write down any significant sickness, disease, or other health condition for each of these family members. Be sure to include birth defects, learning problems/delays, intellectual disabilities, and chronic health problems (for example: diabetes, thyroid disease, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease). Sudden deaths should also be written down.
- For each health problem, it is important to write down the age the person was first diagnosed. Individuals diagnosed with disease at an age younger than one would expect have an increased chance of having hereditary risk factors contributing to disease.
- Documenting lifestyle and environment is important. Examples include dietary and exercise habits, or any possible environmental exposures (smoking, living near a chemical plant, etc.).
- Details on the type of disease are also important. For example, instead of saying that a person has “thyroid disease,” it is important to write down whether it was hyper- or hypothyroidism, or a nodule, cancer, etc. For family members with cancer, the type of tumor and where it was first found is important (ex. breast cancer that spread to the brain should be listed as breast cancer. Write down other important details if known, such as whether it was in one or both breasts, and the tumor type, such as adenocarcinoma). Heart disease is also a common health problem but there are many types, including coronary artery disease, structural defects, cardiomyopathies, arrhythmias, etc., so the more you can find out the better.
- Talk to as many family members as possible, especially about relatives who have passed away. Many times you may find that different family members have different stories about what happened to certain people in your family. It may take some detective work to get a good understanding of the family health history.
It can be hard to collect your family health history, especially if someone in your family is private about their sickness or if you have certain family members with whom you do not speak often. Some families write down important information in journals or a family Bible (often where records of births and deaths are listed, for instance). You may wish to speak to members of your family about whether these resources have been kept.
Finally, family members may not clearly identify all diseases or illnesses. Ask questions that invite family members to describe events and behaviors that might suggest health issues. For example, an uncle who, "never went outside" might suggest a disease that prevented him from walking or he may have suffered from depression. Any information is better than none, so write down what you can and talk to your doctor or genetic counselor about the information you are able to collect.