Obtaining Your Family's Medical History: Do You Know Yours?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
As children our mother’s know everything about our health history. She knows what vaccines we received, what ailments we suffered from, even when we lost our first tooth. But how many of us know our own family’s medical history? While it may seem a tad uncomfortable to ask such personal questions from our parents, unlocking their health history many times can unlock the door to our own health.

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, 96% of Americans rank the need to know one’s family health history as important, however only one-third of us actually take the time to assemble this data. This information is vital not only for you, but for your physician or health care provider as it can help them to determine your risks for many health issues including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.

There are forms available from the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control which can assist you as to what information needs to be obtained. If you prefer to keep an online family history, you can visit the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office at the following Family History Link to begin your Family Medical Record Keeping.

For many a prime time for gathering such health histories is during a family reunion or family holiday, however, it is important to note for many parents this topic can be a little unsettling and you do not want to spring this on them without advance notice. Nonetheless, sitting down with them and explaining the necessity for you to know their medical history may help relieve some of the tension. But in all fairness give them the opportunity to compile the data. You may want to give them the list of questions they will need to answer well in advance. Attempting to remember the dates of any illnesses they may have suffered from or any treatments they may have received may require some investigation on their part, especially if they are offering medical histories regarding their deceased parents and/or siblings.

It is very important to be as specific as possible, while still respecting your parent’s privacy. Reassure your parents that this information is only to be shared with you, your doctor, and your siblings, if they so choose. Once you have the initial talk, it is time to determine what information needs to be obtained.

Below are some of the more commonly asked questions your own physician may need to know.

  • Dates of onset of a disease or medical condition. The earlier in life a family member has been diagnosed with a disease, the more likely there may be a genetic pre-disposition.

  • Many chronic diseases such as heart disease and type II diabetes may be life-long conditions therefore, knowing symptoms and treatments, if any, will also play a vital role.

  • What are/were their health habits? Did/Do they smoke? What type of diet did/do they consume? What activities did/do they participate in?

  • If deceased, note the cause and age at the time of death.

  • All illnesses and conditions need to be accounted for regardless of the severity. Evidence supports a strong link between heart disease and diabetes, as well as rheumatoid arthritis and heart disease.

  • Include such information as high cholesterol, blood pressure, depression, kidney disease, and alcohol/drug dependency issues. Once again note the age of onset.

  • And women, don’t hesitate to ask about your mother’s pregnancy and menopausal histories, including pregnancy complications, miscarriages, stillbirths, and age of onset for menopause.

For many adopted individuals, you may want to ask your parents if they were given your biological parent’s medical history. Depending on the circumstances surrounding the adoption, this may or may not be an option.

While a family history will not entirely protect you from the development of certain diseases and/or conditions, they do serve as a vital resource for your physician and you. They allow your physician to determine your risk factors for disease therefore, providing you a means to adopt healthy measures to slow the disease process, avoid the disease process altogether, or allow your physician to closely monitor your health status for possible issues down the road.

Do you know your family medical history? If not, would you consider using the upcoming holidays as a time to gather such information?

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Did this at my grandmother's family reunion. So strange to see everyone with the same body build and all on the same does of thyroid medicine. Report
I am very sick with an intestinal problem right now. My Gastro doctor in the beginning, asked me about my parents and what illnesses ran in the family. I couldn't tell him! Didn't have a clue. (Slightly dysfuntional family) yet when my mum died as I just found out, apparently, she had pulmonary disease from smoking too many cigs. And when my father died, they also found pulmonary disease in his lungs although he actually burned to death in a fire. Report
A few years ago I thought I was going through meonopause and I talked to my mother about it.I wasn't trying to find out about history but just telling her that my periods had stopped. She told me that no one in the family to her knowledge had any sign of menopause before their fifties. This got me to thinking along with other things going on. I decided to look into it and made an appointment with a doctor regarding my situation . As it turned out I had a growth near my ovaries.I decided to have a total hysterectomy and the Doctor found a cancerous tumor. This was a good outcome thanks to me bringing up my situation with my mother. Report
Is there a way to obtain such records from thoes who have passed on. My parents have been gone for many years now. I know what hospital they used by don't remember Dr. names. I am planing on getting my info. to my children. And maybe their father's although we are no longer to gether.

Another point: What can DNA tell us? Report
Similar to JMONTIE (one of the first posters), my mother is adopted. My father's side of the family, now gone, was very tight-lipped about their medical history. Other that what I've observed from my parents as I grew up - and they were both leading self-destructive lives for many of those years - I really have little to go on. Luckily I have very open relationships with all my doctors and I have confidence that we'll face any of my health "surprises" with courage and knowledge. Report
I think I know a fair amont of the family health history. Mom's side has obesity, diabetes and high blood presure. Dad's side heart trouble. Nice... that's why I am doing something about my weight while I still have my health. Report
I dont know much about my dads side. His parents died of tb when he was a toddler and he was raised by an uncle. Both his uncle and my dad died in their 60s of a heart attack. All my moms family lives to a ripe old age and go nuts....lol Report
My mom and my dad both love doing genealogy. I have way more family history then I could have imagined. It's fun to hear the stories. But no matter how much research you do, you'll never know it all. It can be hard for some family members to share their health problems.
My grandma had breast cancer when my mom was very young. My grandma kept it a secret for so many years until she was a senior that required help. My mom is a RN and is comfortable talking about health. My grandma was also a nurse but was not comfortable with the subject. My mom was shocked to find out her mom had surgery that extreme. Report
I'm not sure why parent's would feel weird about giving out healthy information. More information about your family history will assure your future success and your children. My family is very lucky to have very good health. My grandfather died last year (first of four) and we were thankful to get a complete package from the hospital about his failing health. He was healthy up until the day he entered the hospital so it was a complete surprise but the autopsy helped up learn a little and now we all have copies. I highly suggest that you get this information from the hospital for future reference. In addition, if anyone has died while in the service you can get complete history files from them even if they died while not in the service. The government keeps these records and you can ask for a copy. Very handy! Report
I am an only child and my parents have been open with me about not only their health but of my Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins...I think having a special needs Uncle in the family-he was only supposed to live to age 5 and passed away just this last spring at the age of almost 70!- has helped to make sure that communication was always there. I even carry around a medication, allergies, and surgical/brief health hx list of my parents in the event something happens. I have even been bugging my in-laws to get them to give my husband or one of his sisters the same info. I STRONGLY encourage y'all to do the same! Report
This year, I found out some family medical history only after 2 back to back family emergencies. I found out my maternal great grandmother had breast cancer while filling out medical history for my brother while he was in ICU. I'm 37 and my mother never felt it necessary to communicate that to me or either of my 2 sisters. Report
Maybe you could "reframe" the request.For example, Even though we don't know each other, there is something I would appreciate information about your health histories, and others in the family. There is no need for us to interact personally, yet my physician and myself are requesting this for insights into my medical needs. I would appreciate this more than you know. Thank you so much in advance! Blessings Report
My family is full of high blood pressure and strokes. There is obese issues too so that's why I joined sparks. I don't want any part of any of this. Report
My family is full of massive heart attacks ranging from the age of 39 to 57 (on my mother's side). We have had one immediate family member reach the age of 60 & that was my grandmother. She passed from a massive heart attack exactly one month to the day after her 60th birthday. Hence.... the reason I'm focusing on Spark & my lifestyle changes!! Report
I think I know most of my family's history, but not all of it. I would have no problem asking my mom, and I will just to make sure I know all the pertinent medical history. Thanks for the good information. Report
My husband was healthy, worked out 5 times a week and had aced his cardiac stress test yet he dropped dead one month before his 54th birthday from a massive heart attack. I didn't know until after his death that all but 1 relative on his fathers side had died from heart disease. If we had known that perhaps we would have insisted he have an angiogram just to take a look at his arteries.
I am adopted and the state of Texas doesn't think adult adoptees have rights to their adoption files. So many of us do not have medical history available and what was considered relevant in the 40s and 50s is laughable today. I know I don't have "the dread disease of epilepsy" in my history but nothing was said about heart disease or cancer. Sad isn't it? Report
My maternal grandmother had ovarian cancer, but died of emphysema (40 years of smoking). However, her medical issues were so hush-hush, that my mother swore that she would not keep her kids in the dark about HER medical history! So I know a lot about my mom, her family, and my dad's family. My paternal grandmother was adopted, so we know little beyond her history (she died of cancer in her 80s).

My husband did not know his parents. In 1965, he was brought to his foster family by who he thinks was his biological mother. He thinks his foster parents were his aunt and uncle. They never adopted him formally. His birth certificate has the name of a famous 1960s soap actress' character as the Mother. There is no way of knowing if the Father's name is even real! So my hubby's kids (age 14 and twins age 13) only have their mother's medical history to go by. Report
I do know my family history... I made sure and found in case I ever needed it for medical attention... Report
I was adopted also back in the "dark ages" when everything was hush hush. There was no option for open adoption. This family in Missouri could not get health insurance for their adopted child. http://www.ksdk.com/news/local/stor
I try to share with my kids everything that I have found out about our family's health issues. I also encourage everyone to make their own Past Med/Surgical history and update it frequently. Be sure to list all medications and put any allergies at the top of the list! By having it on file, you can print updated copies for your doctor and it helps them to remember the medications they have prescriped. The best way for me to remember past surgeries was to start with my head and work down to my toes! Report
I totally agree. This isn't information that should be online.

"If I lived in the US I'd be afraid that revealing down this kind of information could result in it being hacked or demanded by an insurance company as a condition of coverage: and then result in denied health insurance . . . or anywhere, life insurance." Report
If I lived in the US I'd be afraid that revealing down this kind of information could result in it being hacked or demanded by an insurance company as a condition of coverange: and then result in denied health insurance . . . or anywhere, life insurance. Report
I know most of my family's history which is why I share it with my daughter now. Hopefully, she can avoid some of the pitfalls by making wiser choices. Report
Have to say I don't know family health history. Only 1 aunt left (both in 80's) on each side of family (parents & grandparents gone); my mother was in her 70's, father in 80's when they died. And even with 7 daughters (me & 6 sisters) my mother didn't hit 100 pds until after I was college age. She was petite - my father larger both bone-wise and taller; and though 2nd in line age-wise, I am the shortest of all the 7 daughters. Don't know any info about sisters - and live quite a distance from all of them - and phone calls with most only a couple times a year. And they don't tell me anything going on health-wise; most was when either parent was dying and we visited as often as possible - living over 100 miles away didn't make it weekly. So very little info other than parents both relatively heavy smokers for 30/40 years. Report
Thanks for the blog on this!!! I know enough to know my Mom had breast cancer twice & beat it both times; so I stay on top of that with me. I also know my paternal grandmother & Dad had/have glaucoma so I'm checked yearly for that. Even tho we don't know for sure, I suspect my paternal grandmother had Alzheimer's so I'll watch for that with me also. Report
I hate how little I know about my family medical history, because I know how important it is to be aware of it. It's like pulling teeth to even get BASIC history out of my mom regarding her health, much less my extended family, and I am too afraid to go ask them on my own because if she doesn't appreciate my questions can't imagine they will. I know to watch my heart, because my mom and brother both have hypertension and my uncle has some heart problems no one will talk about, but outside of that I have no idea what the family medical history holds and don't know how best to find out. Report
I don't know my family's complete history but I know both my grandparents had heart problems and my mother just recently had a heart attack. Hence the reason I've decided to track my food, to watch my sodium. Report
Very sadly my father died of prostate cancer in his late 60s, right after he retired. Both his parents died of TB. On my moms side they live into old age..... Report
In my family I am the 'keeper of the family tree', and it is really important to know our parents' health history as well as general family history. It is vital information to pass down to the gandcildren before it is too late. I wish I had been able to talk to both my grandmothers while they were alive. Report
I have reached at health history here and there. Found it to hold many needed facts.I'll continue to did, for my adult kids' sake Report
this is scary for adoptees and those who have little family in which to get the info from! Report
I know some of my family history but not all of it. I only have 1 parent left and I am going to talk to my mother before it's to late. Report
This is so important. i hope we all take the time to find out the info before it is needed. Report
I know the basics and what I consider to be most important. I can tell you we have heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc in the family and which member (aunt, uncle, grandparent, etc) had it. I don't know dates of onset or ages of death for those that are deceased. I never thought to gather that info and my doctor always seems content with what I do know. I guess maybe I will do a little more research and get more details. Report
I have known for many years that this is important, but I always seem to forget to actually record the information. I will be going to the link and printing out a questionnaire or devising my own to ask my parents and family. I think it is about time I have it written down whether my grandfather died from Lung or Liver Cancer (can never remember even after my mom has told me "millions" (well probably closer to 20) of times!! Plus my brother had a heart bypass a few yrs ago and I can't even remember that date.
Nancy, I sure do appreciate this blog, and the fact that Spark People always keeps us so well informed and thinking of health issues. Report
I do know most of my family history. It did take questioning my aunts and uncles, since I wasn't able to get the info from my parents. I'm really glad I did, it came in handy lately when I had to have extra medical tests run. Report
Yes I know my family history, my husbands family history and have passed it on to our children and the place that have kept these histories is in the family Bible
with so many children now being born out of wedlock and mothers not sure who the fathers are it has to be very hard to follow a family medical history
One day at a time Report
i was adopted in 1947 and finding out who my family was has been a major task. i really caused problems as i have a brother and sister who never knew i existed and it has hurt them that their mother had secrets. i know things are improving but there should be some site or agency that up dates medical history as it changes and still maintains some confidentiality if the birth family wants it. i still have not found my birth fathers family and i need info but sure dont want to disturb their lives. Report
Great thanks so much i am going to the link now Report
A great post with very wise advice, Nancy! Yes, I do know my family's medical history pretty well. And it's something straight out of the Twilight Zone, just perfect for Halloween! Yet it's better to know this information, isn't it? Report
I know most of my mother's medical history simply because it affected so much of her life and towards the end, I was her primary caregiver. I know some of my father's - his life was less fraught with medical issues until the very end, but I know how most of his brothers and sisters died (either a heart attach or cancer, including my father). Beyond that, there is nothing and it will stay that way since I don't keep in touch with my relations. I do, however, know enough about their medical history to know that if they had made healthier lifestyle choices (they almost all smoked, including my parents, and very few ate healthy, and many led sedentary lifestyles), then they would likely have avoided most of their ailments and probably prolonged their lives, most especially my mother, who was obese, had Type II diabetes, smoked and led a sedentary lifestyle. I am choosing to not follow in the footsteps of my family. I've always been the black sheep! Report
I was adopted in 1952. Back then they didn't require any family history, in fact they discouraged people from giving any information about the family at all. My GP and I have have long discussions about this. He is appalled by the secrecy that surrounded adoptions back then. I'm so happy now they have other options. I have no medical history to pass on to my children or grandchildren. It all starts with me. What a shame. Report
At the time I placed my firstborn for adoption, I thought there was no diabetes or heart problems in my family, and that info went into the packet for his adoptive parents. I know better now. To my great joy, I found him 40 years later, and one of the first things I gave the intermediary to pass on to him, even before I knew that he would accept contact from me, was ALL the family medical history. The adoption agency had not passed on ANY of the medical info already in his file. Report
I thought I knew it until I went to enter all the info on the link you provided. I know my immediate family history, son, brothers, sister, parents, and a few aunts and uncles. My grandparents and parents are all deceased, so I have a lot of blanks to fill in for the grandparents, and nobody left to give me any answers. This is a great idea and I'd suggest doing it while the people with the info are still alive! Report
Since I was orphaned at 16 I have no way of getting this info, but wish I could. Report
I do not know this information. I've tried talking to some family members about it before, but they weren't sure and didn't seem to really understand what I wanted to know. It's just something we don't like to talk about. I'd really love to know more about my family in general, not just health-wise, but it's almost like people are giving up "secrets" when we talk. I just get the impression they would rather be anywhere else. I already have social phobia, it's hard enough talking to people in the first place! Report
My mom died of ovarian cancer at age 42, and my father-in-law died of gallbladder cancer in his mid-50s. I got the rest of my family medical history from my dad and my husband's from his mom when I was pregnant to discuss with my OB. My dad has since died of lung cancer (he smoked for 60 of his 70 years), so I'm glad I got the info while I could. Report
Except in very few circumstances, like your parents dieing when you were really young, adoption, or a really bad relationship with your parents, I would think that most people would know this information. I know just about everything about my parents' medical histories, except the onset of menopause for my mom. However, I think I have a pretty good idea based on her mood swings when I was young. :-) I even know a good bit of information on both sets of grandparents - diabetes from my maternal grandmother, heart disease from both grandfathers, cancer from my maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather, and macular degeneration from my paternal grandmother even though she lived to be over 100!

Knowing my family's history has helped me and my doctor diagnose problems that I have had - I had my gall bladder removed a couple of years ago. My dad had his removed when he was around 40, my mom had hers removed when she was over 70 after it caused a really scary bout of pancreatitis, then my sister had hers removed a little over a year before mine was removed. Knowing all the symptoms my mom had, then confirming some things with my dad and sister got me to the doctor. When I went over the family history with him and my symptoms, he sent me for the ultrasound and I had surgery within a couple of weeks. The surgeon said it had been extremely inflamed and full of stones. I am so thankful I had mine removed because a stone is what caused my mom's severe pancreatitis. It was so bad, the doctors were amazed that she even survived.

I am really thankful that I know what I do because my oldest brother is adopted and knows nothing. Report
both of my parents are gone, as are all of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and a brother and sister. my mother knew nothing of her family's health history because her parents died when she was a child..

i'm in the dark.
i do know my dad died when he was 57 from complications from diabetes and my mom died at 64 from lung/pancreatic cancer. i'm hoping to live longer than both of them and sparkpeople is helping me do that! Report
I was adopted also. I do not have any Medical History of either of my birth parents. Still interested to find out, since I have had weight problems in my adult life. I Worry about other health issues I don't know about. Report