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Your Family Health Tree 

Knowing where you came from can help you protect yourself from what’s to come The next time you find yourself calling mom for grandma’s chicken noodle soup recipe, why not ask her about your family’s health history too? Just like eye color, personality traits and precious heirlooms, certain aspects of health also are passed down from generation to generation. While about 96 percent of Americans agree that knowing their family health history is important, only about a third of them actually write theirs down, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The sooner you record yours, the better prepared you and your family will be. 

Benefits and Limitations

Knowing your family medical history can help you protect yourself from certain diseases and conditions. Of course, just because an ailment appears to run in your family doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily get it. But if you know you might be at greater risk for it, you can work with your physician to take steps to protect yourself, which may include exercising, eating more healthfully, reducing stress, and scheduling more frequent or earlier preventive screenings.

On the other hand, just because a disease hasn’t been diagnosed in your family, don’t assume that you aren’t at risk. For example, women with a family history of breast cancer may be more likely to get it than others, but 70 percent to 80 percent of women diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of the disease.

Get Started

When gathering your family health history, aim to go back three generations. Talk to relatives and search records for as much information as possible. For each family member, find out:

  • Major diseases and conditions and age at diagnosis
  • Age at death and cause of death
  • Ethnic background
  • Lifestyle  and habits (smoking, heavy drinking, obesity, etc.)

Tracking Trends

Not all diseases are hereditary, but family history is a strong risk factor in heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer, among other conditions. Once you have your family’s medical history gathered, examine it for the following:

  • Diseases that occurred earlier than average (10 to 20 years before most people develop the disease)
  • Diseases that affect more than one close relative
  • Diseases that ordinarily don’t affect a particular gender (such as breast cancer in men)
  • Combinations of related diseases (like breast and ovarian cancer)

What's Next?

Upon completing your family health tree, consult with your physician about ways to use it to protect yourself. He or she may recommend you have certain screenings earlier or more frequently than otherwise planned. He or she also can recommend lifestyle changes that could help prevent or delay the onset of disease. If you notice a pattern and want to know more, you might consider genetic testing. It can help determine if you have an inherited form of a disease and if other family members are at risk. Lastly, be sure to pass on the invaluable information you’ve assembled to family members, especially your children. It’s a legacy that could help save a life.