Why Your Family History Is So Important

Family history is an important thing. And it’s not just because telling that story about Great Aunt Thelma and the possum gets people cracked up every time (although, oh my, that is a great story). Knowing your family history helps you to know a lot about yourself, like the kinds of things you might be good at, or where your excellent sense of humor comes from. But you also have a kind of family history that tells you a lot about your health, and what to expect as you age: it’s your family health history.

Knowing what kinds of diseases your siblings, parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents have had gives you a clue about what kinds of health situations you might face, or your children or grandchildren. So, just like knowing that your family has a history of cattle rustling can help you steer clear of the whole ranching industry, so too can knowing your family health history help you avoid some health problems, or at least get them detected earlier when they’re more treatable.

A few diseases that tend to run in families include diabetes, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, or more rare diseases like sickle-cell anemia, hemophilia, and cystic fibrosis. Talking with family members about their own health or about the health of deceased relatives will help you create a family health portrait of things to which you and other family members might be more susceptible. You can then discuss these conditions with your doctor, who can suggest lifestyle changes to avoid certain problems, provide screenings for the potential disease, or refer you to a genetic counselor if necessary.

If you’re wondering how to get started, the U.S. Surgeon General has spearheaded a Family Health History Initiative. You can go to to create your own family health portrait. The interface is wonderfully intuitive, and is also available in Spanish and Portuguese. You can print your family health chart while on the website, or save the information to your home computer, to be accessed and edited as needed. Your state health department might also have toolkits to use in developing your own family health history.

Forewarned is definitely forearmed (ore forelegged in my case), especially when it comes to your health. So, take this next family get-together (Thanksgiving is officially designated National Family History Day, by the way) to chat about your family health. And maybe break out that story about Aunt Thelma again. Because seriously, it is just so darn good.