Talking About Your Family Medical History with Your Family

Neeru Singh, MD
March 1, 2021
4 min

It’s a chat we all need to have with our family members and one we often push to the wayside: talking about our health history.

Why is this so important? A full picture of your family’s medical history arms you and your provider with the tools to personalize a proactive and preventative plan for your optimal health—now and as you age. 

Your family’s medical history encompasses any record of health conditions or diseases in your family. Some diseases can be hereditary, and other traits or genes can predispose you to chronic conditions. So having this knowledge can help you make informed decisions that might affect your health.

Most people have a family medical history with at least one case of a close relative having a serious health condition. Sometimes patients bring providers a longer list. We’re betting you’ll find something when you do some digging that you might want to discuss with your provider.

Here’s a quick guide to documenting your family medical history.

What family medical health information you need to know:

  • You’re looking for any major medical conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. 
  • You’ll also want to know the age of your relatives when they were diagnosed with any condition. 
  • If your relatives are deceased, it’s important to find out at what age they passed away.
  • An understanding of your ethnic background and ancestry. 

Which family members are we talking about?

  • You’ll want to know if any health conditions have affected your immediate family members including both parents and any siblings—whole or half sisters and brothers. 
  • And you’ll want to find out aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and grandparents on both maternal and paternal sides, too. 

You all share genes, so even if you live in separate environments or have different lifestyles, it’s possible that the health conditions they’ve been diagnosed with, you’re at risk of experiencing too. 

How to find the family information you’re searching for:

Look at family medical records and death certificates, if accessible.

Use family gatherings as an opportunity to learn about your relatives’ health histories. 

How to record the information you find:

The Center for Disease Control offers this convenient online tool from the Surgeon General. You can use it to record the branches of your family, health conditions you’ve learned about, and you can save it digitally (and confidentially) to share with your provider. 

What if you don’t have access to your biological family’s medical history?

For some patients, access to their medical history is a little more complicated than sitting down and chatting with an aunt or uncle. For example, people who have been adopted or who may have lost family members early in life might have to do some extra research or testing to find some answers. While some adoptees have access to their birth parents' names and public records, many do not. A conversation with their adoptive parents might shed light on information about their biological family or help them access the adoption agency.

If you don’t have a way to access your family medical history, don’t panic. Have an open and honest conversation with your provider about your situation. They will be more than willing to talk you through options and answer any questions you might have.

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Neeru Singh, MD

Neeru Singh, MD, is a Medical Director at Carbon Health. As a primary care physician, she enjoys educating and guiding patients on important health decisions.


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