How to create a family health history

| Planning for Myself or a Loved One

Medical doctor typing on laptop


How to create a family health history

A family health history is a written record of health and medical conditions that have happened to you and your relatives, including your immediate and extended family. It isn’t a prediction of your health or your family’s health; rather, a family health history can help you understand your risk of certain conditions and act on that knowledge.

Why is a family health history important?

When it comes to your health, knowledge is power. Many disease risk factors are modifiable, meaning that we can change them for the better and optimize our health. If you learn, for example, that heart disease runs in your family, you may feel motivated to make lifestyle changes that help lower your risk.

Keeping track of your health and medical information and that of your close relatives is beneficial in many ways. A family health history may help you and your relatives:

Identify disease and health patterns in your family

  • Understand and reduce your risk of certain diseases – for example, by changing your lifestyle habits, getting screening tests or seeking genetic counselling
  • Uncover an undiagnosed condition (for example, 1.5 million Canadians have diabetes and don’t know it)
  • Plan for pregnancy
  • Open up a dialogue about health in your family

Knowing your family’s health history can also help your physician:

  • Recommend preventative lifestyle changes
  • Determine the type and frequency of screening tests you should get
  • Diagnose health issues
  • Prescribe treatments

Create your family health tree

How’s how to get started on your family health tree or family health history:

Make a list of family members. Include grandparents, parents, siblings (including half-siblings), children, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews and grandchildren. Include at least three generations, if possible. Make note of who married into or was adopted into the family.

List their health conditions. For each person, note:

  • Birthdate and sex
  • Significant health issues, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes or cancer (including type)
  • Other health conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, osteoporosis, asthma, allergies, arthritis, autoimmune diseases, migraines, vision loss, hearing loss, etc.
  • Major surgeries
  • Bone fractures
  • Mental health and neurological conditions, such as dementia or depression
  • Alcoholism and other substance use issues
  • Learning disabilities
  • Pregnancy complications, including infertility, birth defects, miscarriages, stillbirths
  • Age at which each health condition began
  • Other factors that can influence health, such as smoking, exercise, weight, diet, environment and ethnicity/ancestry (some health conditions are more prevalent among certain groups)
  • For relatives who have passed away, age and cause(s) of death

Talk to your family. To gain more information, explain to your relatives what you’re doing and why. “Interview” those who are willing to discuss their health. Listen carefully and take notes. (If someone declines to participate, respect their wishes and their privacy.)

Expand your research. Family trees, family photos, letters and baby books may contain useful information. If you need more information about deceased relatives, look for family medical records, insurance forms, obituaries, funeral home records or death certificates. Your family members may have these or know where to access them.

Organize your notes. You can keep information in a word processing document or actually draw a family health tree, if you like.

Share your family health history with your health-care provider. They can review and help you interpret your findings.

Share the information with your family. Knowing that certain diseases run in the family may help your relatives make health decisions, change their lifestyle habits, keep up with medical appointments, etc.

Store health information safely. You can password-protect digital files. If your notes are on paper, keep them somewhere safe and private.

Update your family’s health history regularly. Share updates with your physician. And if you develop a health condition yourself, let your family know.


Do you plan to create a family health history?