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Do You Know Your Family's Health History?

FamiliesActing Surgeon General Rear Admiral Steven K. Galson, M.D., M.P.H., has declared this Thanksgiving the fifth annual National Family History Day. Since 2004, the Surgeon General has urged all Americans to use this time of family gatherings to protect their family's future health by learning about and recording their medical history.

Disease prevention is the primary goal. A family history provides a unique look into the family's genetic makeup as well as its environmental exposures. Identifying conditions that recur in the family from generation to generation provides powerful clues about health risks to primary care givers. That information can be used to increase screening for the recurring maladies to avert them. And if it cannot be prevented, then at least the illness will be diagnosed early when treatments tend to be most effective.

While such generational recurrences may indicate a hereditary condition, they may also point to environmental hazards, such as tobacco use, high-fat diets, or occupational or environmental exposures. Identifying any of these health risks factors may improve the chance of avoiding them and a family history can help.

"Talking about and sharing your own family health history is something you can do right now in order to gain an understanding of your individual health," Surgeon General Galson said. "Tracing the illnesses from which your grandparents, parents and additional blood relatives have suffered can help your health care provider predict the diseases to which you could be at risk."

To help families organize their medical history, the Surgeon General provides a free Internet tool called My Family Health Portrait. The tool provides a structured way to collect medical information about individual family members and then produces a pedigree, a kind of family tree that links blood relatives together in a way that helps medical professionals trace heritable conditions from generation to generation. The tool also prints out the pedigree so family members can give it to their primary care givers as a genetic screening tool.

My Family Health Portrait is freely available at My Family Health Portrait [familyhistory.hhs.gov]. The tool leads a user through the process of input his or her own health information and then leads the user through a process that collects information on as many blood relatives as desired. Information entered into the tool is protected by the same level of Internet security used for bank transactions. The government retains no information from the tool.

It is recommended, however, that users save the information that they enter into the tool on their own computers, especially if they want to add more information later. When saving the file, users should give it a name and a date, and remember where it was saved on the personal computer.

The tool also allows a user to shift the focus of the pedigree from centering on the user to centering on any other family member. This is a particularly handy feature for parents or grandparents who might want to organize the family's medical history and share it with their children or grandchildren.

Some may find it easier to organize family history information on a piece of paper instead of on a computer screen. The Surgeon General's Family History Initiative also provides printable tools that can be used to collect the same family history information. The paper tools can be found at My Family Health Portrait - Paper Version [hhs.gov] in six languages: English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Polish and Portuguese.

Surgeon General Galson announced that a "next-generation" family health history tool is expected to be released in early 2009. The new tool will collect the same family history information but, in addition, it will allow the information to be shared electronically among family members and health care providers, as well as between personalized health records and electronic health records.

Additional information about the Surgeon General's Family History Initiative, and more details about how to collect and use family history information, can be found at Surgeon General's Family History Initiative.

Last updated: November 24, 2014