When you fill out forms at your doctor’s office, do you wonder why it matters whether or not your grandmother had high blood pressure or diabetes? Your doctor also asks you questions like this. Why is it important?
Your medical history includes both your personal health history and your family health history. Your personal health history has details about any health problems you’ve ever had. A family health history has details about health problems your blood relatives have had during their lifetimes.
This information gives your doctor all kinds of important clues about what’s going on with your health, because many diseases run in families. The history also tells your doctor what health issues you may be at risk for in the future. If your doctor learns, for example, that both of your parents have heart disease, they may focus on your heart health when you’re much younger than other patients who don’t have a family history of heart disease.
Who to Include
If it’s possible, every adult should know their family health history. You may or may not already know some information about conditions that affected different family members. Even if you think you do, double-check what you know. Find out even more about as many blood relatives as you can, and remember to include half-sisters and brothers.
You should not include people who are not blood relatives, such as:
- Your spouse
- Your adopted children or adoptive parents/siblings
- Your stepchildren or step-siblings
- Your relatives who married into the family
Gather Your Family Health History
Make sure to write down what you learn, in case you forget details over time. You’ll also be able to add to the information you already have.
Make sure to share the information with your siblings, children, or grandchildren, as they get older.
To get started, call your relatives, or ask them in person about your family health history. Let your relatives know you’re not being nosy, but just want to gather details that could keep you and other family members healthy. You can offer to share what you learn, so that everyone can benefit from your research.
You’ll want to ask about common chronic (ongoing) health conditions. Find out how old each person was when they learned about their condition. You may want to start by asking about these common family health problems:
You’ll need to know the health history of relatives who have died, too. If you have access to death certificates or medical records, you can find out the cause of death and how old they were, but living relatives may know the details.
If You’re Adopted
If you were adopted, you may not know anything about your birth parents’ health history. If that’s the case, a big chunk of your medical history is a question mark. You may wonder if you’re at risk for heart disease, cancer, or other diseases that run in families.
Rules vary by state, but most adopted people are able to access details about their birth parents’ family medical history once they become adults. Such information may be found through a state’s child welfare agency or the department that assists with adoptions.
How Your History Keeps You Healthy
Once you find out your medical history, you can make powerful choices for yourself. If you learn, for example, that heart disease runs in your family, you may decide to make lifestyle changes that could lower your risk, such as quitting smoking, losing weight, or getting more exercise.
Your doctor may also use the information to give you screening tests, which might catch a disease, such as cancer, early. There are lots of ways your medical history can put you and your doctor in better control of your health.