Knowing your family’s medical history could save your life

You and your family members share genes. Maybe you have your mom’s curly hair or your dad’s brown eyes. You might also have behaviors in common, such as liking the same foods or being a morning person.

But health problems can be passed down by family, too. Most people have a family health history of at least one serious disease, such as cancer, diabetes, or dementia. This means you may be more likely to develop that disease yourself, especially if your family member got it at a younger age than usual or more than one relative had it.

If you’re not sure which medical conditions run in your family, now is the time to find out. This knowledge could help save your life — if you act on it! Read on for tips to help you uncover your family health history and reduce your risk of getting the same diseases.

Which diseases can be inherited?

Conditions that often run in the family include:

  • Cancer, including colon, pancreatic, breast, ovarian, uterine, and prostate cancer
  • Autoimmune conditions such as lupus, thyroid problems, and coeliac disease
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Mood disorders, including depression and anxiety
  • Dementia
  • Blood clots

Collect your family health history

Your family’s medical history can be some of the best information your doctor has to understand your health risks, but it’s not always easy to get. Here are some strategies for success:

  • Be upfront. Tell your loved ones you want to talk with your doctor about your health and knowing your family’s history of diseases will help you be proactive about your risks. Some family members might prefer to keep their health information private, and that’s okay — you can still learn a lot about your family medical history even if you don’t get information on everyone.
  • Take notes. Make a list of your close relatives from both sides of the family: parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and cousins. Talk to them about serious health conditions they have (or had), and what age they were diagnosed. You might find it helpful to use a tool like My Family Health Portrait which helps you document, organize, and update your family’s health history online.
  • Be opportunistic. Use family gatherings as a time to talk about health history. Look at death certificates and family medical records, if possible. If some family members are unavailable, ask others what they know. For example, your grandmother may be able to provide key details about your grandfather’s health. Knowing the cause of death and age at death can also be valuable information.
  • Consider genetic testing. If you’re not able to get an accurate family health history — you were adopted, for instance — you could talk to your doctor about whether genetic testing is right for you. Genetic testing, often done with a simple blood test or cheek swab, is useful in many areas of medicine and can change the care you receive. For example, it can help diagnose a genetic condition or provide information about your risk of developing cancer.

Now, act on it

Once you’ve collected your family’s health history, here’s what to do with it!

  • Share it with your primary care doctor. Even if you don’t know all of your family’s health history, share what you do have. Having some information, even if it’s incomplete, helps your doctor see the big picture. It can help them determine which screenings you need and when, recommend lifestyle changes you can make to lower your risks, and decide if treatment or medication would be helpful.
  • Ask about specific concerns. If your doctor thinks you may be at higher risk for a certain disease, ask them what you can do to reduce it. Was your aunt diagnosed with breast cancer? Ask your doctor if you should get mammograms earlier or more frequently. Do your dad and uncle have diabetes? Ask your doctor about screening for prediabetes, which can increase your chances of getting type 2 diabetes.
  • Make healthy lifestyle changes, if needed. You can’t change your genes, but you can change your behavior. In many cases, leading a healthy lifestyle can reduce your risk of developing a hereditary disease. For example, if you have a family history of heart disease, you can lower your risk by eating a healthy diet, staying active, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting your alcohol use.
  • Keep up with preventive care. Screening tests, such as blood sugar testing, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screenings, can find early signs of disease — and that can often mean better health in the long run. Getting the recommended screenings, as well as your annual checkups, also helps you and your doctor track your health over time. Plus, in-network preventive care is free under your company medical plan.
  • Pay it forward. Share what you’ve learned with family members, so you can all benefit from knowing your family’s health history. It’s valuable knowledge that can help them better understand their own risks.

“Knowing is Not Enough—Act on Your Family Health History,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (
“Family Health History: The Basics,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (
“Here’s Why Knowing Your Family’s Medical History Is Important,” GoodRx Health (, April 30, 2021
“Why Knowing Your Family’s Health Past Benefits Your Future,” Duke Health (, November 15, 2021