It’s All Relative

Health risks can be inherited. Family members share a lot of physical characteristics: hair color, eye color, being tall (or short). Families also share risks for certain diseases, such as heart disease. A family history does not mean you will automatically develop the same disease as your relatives, only that you are at somewhat greater risk. Most illnesses are not due solely to genetics.

Knowing your family’s health history is an important way to take charge of your own health. Being aware that you have a genetic predisposition for a disease means you can take steps to lower your risk. You might be surprised at how much lifestyle changes, such as becoming more physically active and quitting smoking, can make a difference.

Family history can be a powerful screening tool and has been referred to as the best “genetic test.”

Compiling YOUR family health history

For a complete picture of your hereditable health risks, you’ll want to collect information from three generations of relatives:

  • Yourself and your siblings
  • Your parents, aunts, uncles and cousins
  • Your grandparents

Here’s what you want to know:

  • Any known diseases, including age at diagnosis and treatments (don’t forget mental health illnesses)
  • Cause of death and age at death
  • Lifestyle factors, such as smoking or obesity
  • Ancestry (people of certain ethnic groups are at higher risk for specific diseases)
  • Other environmental factors (for example, did a relative who died young work in a job that exposed him to dangerous chemicals?)

Family Health History Tools

“My Family Health Portrait” by the U.S. surgeon general’s office is one of the most widely used tools. You can print the family history document or complete the form electronically. Saving the information online makes it easy to update as your family’s health information changes over time. Furthermore, other family members can use the data you collect as a starting point to create their own family history.

The Genetic Alliance ( offers a printable family health history questionnaire and a “Summary of Family Health History” you can share with your doctor.

The March of Dimes ( also offers a printable family health history form.

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