Know your family history; save your life.


When people look at a child, they often say things like, “She has her mother’s eyes and her grandfather’s curly hair.” On the other hand, you never hear people say things like, “She has her mother’s tendency toward diabetes and her grandfather’s atrial fibrilliation.” But those things can get passed down from one generation to the next just like eyes or hair.

This is why Go Red For Women encourages women to look deeply into their family health history. The information you find out can give you an early heads up that might save your life. The more information you can collect will help your doctor be on the lookout for early signs of the same diseases in yourself and in your own children. Equipped with this vital information, you and your doctor can begin taking steps to prevent and manage the same ailments that might have shortened the lives of previous generations in your family.

Gathering your family health history can actually be a very fascinating journey. It can even help you grow closer to older members of your family and your siblings as you do research and interviews, then share what you learn.

Here’s a great tool from the Surgeon General to help you and your family organize your family history:

If you have gaps in your own understanding of your family health history, the perfect place to do a family history discussion is at your next family reunion. Schedule a time to bring it up, and make sure someone leads the discussion to keep things on track and write the information down. Make sure to include the older members of the family in the discussion because they will know details about previous generations that you don’t. You’ll be surprised at the deep level of bonding that can take place! Bring up the names of deceased family members and ask these three key questions about each person:

  1. What was their age when they passed?
  2. What did they die from?
  3. When were they first diagnosed?

After you have talked about the deceased members, you can tactfully move on to gathering health information about those still living. Make sure not to be gossipy about those not in attendance, and don’t force anyone to share something about themselves they are not comfortable sharing. You might invite openness in the discussion by first sharing something about your own health issues like maybe stiff joints or weight struggles.

If you can’t have the discussion in person, send out emails or letters to family members asking them to share what they know. Be sure to include a deadline for when you need them to respond. For example, you might say, “I’m having my annual Well-Woman Visit in three weeks, and I need to share my family history with my doctor, so please respond before then.”

You may be surprised how often the same afflictions keep popping up from generation to generation. Sometimes the conditions are genetic, but sometimes they are related to lifestyle choices like smoking or unhealthy dietary patterns that are passed down through generations.

Make sure to gather family histories from your father’s side and your mother’s side. If the same health problems show up on both sides of your family, it could increase your risk even more.

Once all the information has been gathered, type it up neatly or print copies from the previous link and send it to everyone in the family. Tell them to share it with their doctor at their next Well-Woman Visit or annual exam. (This is a great time to encourage them to get their own Well-Woman Visit!)

And when you have your Well-Woman Visit, bring your family history and talk about it with your doctor. This is an invaluable diagnostic tool that will help your health care provider have a clearer picture of what to watch for in your health, and might call for additional screenings in specific areas.

Remember that your family health history is never “done.” It’s an ongoing collection of information that you should add to and update in the years ahead. Plus, it’s a great legacy to pass on to future members of your family to help them live longer, healthier lives.