What other sources of information may be beneficial?

You might want to consult family documents, such as existing family trees, baby books, old letters, obituaries or records from places of worship. Public records — birth certificates, marriage licenses and death certificates — are usually available in county record offices. If you or your family members maintain electronic personal health records, use them.

If you're adopted, ask your adoptive parents if they received any medical information about your biological parents at the time of your adoption. Adoption agencies also might have family medical information on file. If you were adopted through an open adoption process, you might be able to discuss your family's medical history directly with members of your biological family.

What information should be included in a family medical history?

If possible, your family medical history should include at least three generations. Compile information about your grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, siblings, cousins, children, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. For each person, try to gather the following information:

  • Sex
  • Date of birth
  • Ethnicity
  • Medical conditions
  • Mental health conditions, including alcoholism or other substance abuse
  • Pregnancy complications, including miscarriage, stillbirth, birth defects or infertility
  • Age when each condition was diagnosed
  • Lifestyle habits, including diet, exercise and tobacco use
  • For deceased relatives, age at the time of death and cause of death

Pay special attention to conditions that develop earlier than usual, such as high blood pressure in early adulthood, or conditions that affect multiple relatives.

Include information about where your mother's and your father's family members came from — for example, Germany, Africa, China and so on. This information can be helpful because some health problems occur more often in specific ethnic groups.

What should I do after compiling the information?

Give your doctor a copy of your family medical history and ask him or her to review it with you. Your doctor might ask you questions for clarification and can help you interpret the relevance of certain patterns in your medical history, including the need for preventive measures or screening tests.

As children are born and family members develop illnesses, update your family medical history. Share relevant updates with your doctor. It might take time and effort, but this tool can help improve the health of your family for generations to come.

Oct. 23, 2014 See more In-depth