Family time

Family holidays are usually a time for celebration, but experts say gatherings are a good time to learn your family’s health history.


BARABOO—Knowing your family history is an important part of understanding who you are. Knowing your family health history can save your life. While your family is gathered to celebrate the holiday season, experts hope you’ll take time to talk about everyone’s health.

Important information

In a recent survey, the U.S. Surgeon General’s office discovered that even though 96 percent of Americans say knowing their family’s health history is important, only a third have ever tried to gather and write down the information.

Dr. Maureen Murphy, a family physician at SSM Health Dean Medical Group in Lake Delton and St. Clare Hospital, encourages her patients to create a family health history. “It is very important for a provider to know a patient’s family history and its potential impact on their health,” she said. “We use this information to help determine how often certain screenings should be done.”

Murphy offers two examples of how knowing a family history can inform her recommendations:

  • If a woman’s family history reveals her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 45 and her maternal grandmother has a history of ovarian cancer, Murphy would recommend genetics counseling. The counselor would then do a more extensive family history and offer a yes-or-no recommendation on further testing for the BRCA 1 and 2 genetic mutation. If the patient has the mutation, she will be followed much more closely for the development of breast cancer.
  • If a patient’s family history includes a bleeding disorder, Murphy would recommend testing the patient for the disorder. The testing and confirmation of the bleeding disorder could prevent disastrous outcomes during future surgeries or procedures that might be avoidable if the disorder was unknown.

When developing a family health history, Murphy says she looks for specific information. “The kinds of things we ask about are heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure and any cancers – including skin cancer that is melanoma. We also ask about bleeding disorders, congenital problems and mental health concerns,” she said.

You should also let your doctor know about rare or genetic conditions that exist in your family’s health history.

Starting the conversation

Talking about health issues can be extremely hard for some families. Stigma may surround a condition that runs in the family or family members may consider their health too private to discuss. That’s okay. Murphy says explaining the importance can help start the process.

“I suggest to patients who don’t know much of their family’s health history to start by explaining how their doctor asked about it and how what happened to their family members could have consequences on his or her health,” she explained. “You don’t need the ‘gory details,’ but the basics of what caused someone’s death or illness can be extremely helpful.”

One way to start is to create a family health history “tree” – similar to how you create a genealogy family tree.

First, make a list of the relatives you should include in your family health history. “The family history that is most relevant includes first degree relatives – that would be parents, siblings or children,” Murphy said. “But a medical history of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and other blood relatives can also provide important information.”

Once you’ve created the list, you can make abbreviations for conditions each person has or died from over their spot in the family tree. This can offer a “bird’s eye view” of what is prominent or recurring in your family’s health.

If you don’t know what conditions some family members have or what someone in your family died from, make a list of questions to ask family members during a family gathering, by phone or by email.

Things to consider include:

  • Do you have a chronic illness – like heart disease, diabetes or high blood pressure?
  • Have you had any other serious illnesses, including cancer or a stroke?
  • How old were you when you were diagnosed?
  • Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancy, like miscarriage?

You can also consider asking questions about other relatives – both living and deceased:

  • What country or countries did our family come from?
  • Has anyone in our family had a learning or developmental disability?
  • What illnesses did our late grandparents have?
  • How old were they when they died?
  • What caused their death(s)?

These questions may feel uncomfortable, that’s okay. Be sensitive to your family member’s feelings and let them know that any information they are comfortable sharing is helpful.

Once you create your family health history, make sure you write it down and keep it easily accessible or shareable in case others in your family are interested in the information. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers a free Family Health Portrait online and other services are available where you can store and share documents online.

Keep updating

Over time, your family’s health will change. As children are born or family members develop illnesses, remember to add these details to your health history. It does take time and effort, but it can help keep your family healthy for generations to come.