Medical history: Compiling your medical family tree

Your family medical history provides insight into the conditions that are common in your family. Use this history to give you clues about your risk of disease.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Your family medical history, sometimes called a medical family tree, is a record of illnesses and medical conditions affecting your family members. Here's why a family medical history can come in handy — and how to create a family medical history of your own.

How is a family medical history used?

You inherit half of your genetic profile from each parent. Along with the genetic information that determines your appearance, you also inherit genes that might cause or increase your risk of certain medical conditions. A family medical history can reveal the history of disease in your family and allow you to identify patterns that might be relevant to your own health.

Your doctor might use your family medical history to:

  • Assess your risk of certain diseases
  • Recommend treatments or changes in diet or other lifestyle habits to reduce the risk of disease
  • Determine which diagnostic tests to order
  • Determine the type and frequency of screening tests
  • Determine whether you or family members should get a specific genetic test
  • Identify a condition that might not otherwise be considered
  • Identify other family members who are at risk of developing a certain disease
  • Assess your risk of passing conditions on to your children

A family medical history can't predict your future health. It only provides information about risk. Other factors — such as your diet, weight, exercise routine and exposure to environmental factors — also affect your risk of developing certain diseases.

What's the best way to gather family medical information?

Your family might want to work together to develop a family medical history. Consider kicking off the project at a family gathering, such as a holiday or reunion. Keep in mind, however, that some loved ones might be uncomfortable disclosing personal medical information.

The U.S. Surgeon General has created a computerized tool called My Family Health Portrait to help you create a family medical history. Or, you can compile your family's health history on your computer or in a paper file.

If you encounter reluctance from your family, consider these strategies:

  • Share your purpose. Explain that you're creating a record to help you determine whether you and your relatives have a family history of certain diseases or health conditions. Offer to make the medical history available to other family members so that they can share the information with their doctors.
  • Provide several ways to answer questions. Some people might be more willing to share health information in a face-to-face conversation. Others might prefer answering your questions by phone, mail or email.
  • Word questions carefully. Keep your questions short and to the point.
  • Be a good listener. As your relatives talk about their health problems, listen without judgment or comment.
  • Respect privacy. As you collect information about your relatives, respect their right to confidentiality.

If information about a disease or cause of death is unknown, don't guess at the answer. An incorrect guess can result in a poor interpretation of your medical history. Don't worry if some details are missing.

Oct. 23, 2014 See more In-depth