How do I collect my family history?
What Information Should I Collect?
Family health history is a record of the health conditions in your family. It also includes your family’s jobs, hobbies, habits, and more. There is some basic information you should collect on each member of your family:
- Name and how you are related (yourself, parent, child, aunt, uncle)
- Ethnicity, race, or where the family member came from
- Date and place of birth (you can use your best guess, for example, “1940s”)
- For a family member who has passed away, include their age and how they died
- Major medical conditions
- When (at what age) a disease was discovered
- Information about habits, such as exercise and diet
- Information about jobs, such as farming or office work
- Stories about your ancestry and culture
Where Do I Find the Information?
You can find information in family trees, baby books, old letters, obituaries, or records from places of worship.
Talking with your relatives is the best way to get the rest of the information. Some people may be more willing to share health information face to face. Others may prefer answering your questions by phone, mail, or e-mail. However you do it, it is important that you explain why you are asking the questions. Let your family members know that you are creating a record to find out whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions.
Getting Ready for the Conversations
It helps to prepare questions ahead of time. Here are some questions to get you started. Feel free to add your own questions that are specific to your own family.
Questions about childhood
- Where were you born?
- Where did you grow up?
- Did you experience any health problems (for example, allergies) as a child?
- Do you have any brothers or sisters? Are they living? How old are they?
Questions about adulthood
- What jobs have you had? Can you tell me about a normal day?
- What was your work environment like?
- Do you have children? What are their names? When were they born? Did they have any health problems?
- What habits (for example, sun exposure, physical activity, smoking) have you had that could have affected your health?
- Did you have any health problems as an adult? At what age? How was this treated (for example, medicine or surgery)?
Your family members may not be able to answer all your questions. In some cases they may not want to. Some people may be willing to answer only some of your questions, or ask that you keep some answers between you and your healthcare provider. This is OK. Collect the information you can, and respect your relatives’ wishes.
What Will My Family Health History Look Like?
The family health history information you collect can be written down or typed on a computer in the form of charts, checklists, forms, and drawings of a family tree. It is important to write down all of the information so it makes sense to you, your family, and your healthcare provider. Here are some ways you can organize your information:
- Family Health Portrait: A family health portrait is like a family tree showing family members and their health. The US Surgeon General has an online tool that lets you build your family health portrait. It can be easily shared with your healthcare provider.
- Healthcare Provider Card: This card focuses on concerns you have about your family health history. You fill it out and bring it to your healthcare provider. It also gives your provider more information on how to best use your family health history to figure out your risk for getting a disease.