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Family history is important for your health.

Even though you cannot change your genetic makeup, knowing your family history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems.

Below are related questions and answers to this service we provide included in our services to our clients within your private website.




1. What information do I need?

Speak directly with relatives.
Explain that information on their health can help improve the prevention and revision of illnesses of ALL the family members.

Ask them about any illnesses they have had.
If you can, get as much specific information as possible. Ask about chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes complications during pregnancy, such as spontaneous abortion, and any other growth disorder.

If possible, make a list of formal names of the diseases.
It may be useful to create a separate page with detailed information and description of any disease that relatives have had. Also, make a list of medications they took.

Get help finding information.
Ask your relatives or medical professionals about diseases that have affected you or your family members (living or dead). If possible, obtain copies of medical records.

Is there cancer or a rare disease in the family?
If there is, it is important to collect all the possible information from all family members. If someone has died, ask other relatives or check to see if the doctors have kept the medical records.

Are you planning to have children?
Both you and your partner should do an individual family health portrait and show it to your doctor.

2. Creating a Family Health Portrait.

Knowing your family medical history can save your life.

With a copy of the health history of your family, you and a health care professional may individualize your care and conduct checks for medical conditions that can be of greater risk. Family events such as Thanksgiving, birthdays, anniversaries, or other family gatherings offer a great opportunity to collect information for the "My Family Health Portrait".

3. Who should I speak to?

To obtain the most accurate health history, it is important to talk directly with your relatives. Explain that their health information can help improve the prevention and detection of illnesses for all family members.

First of all, ask your relatives about any health conditions they have had, including a history of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, complications at childbirth (for example, spontaneous abortion), and any disability related to its development. Get as much specific information as possible.

It would be very useful if you could list (with the medical names) any medical condition that has affected you or your relatives.

You can get help finding information about health conditions that have affected you or your relatives (living or deceased) by requesting the information from your relatives or health professionals, or getting copies of the medical records.

If you are planning to have children, both you and your partner should complete an individual family health portrait and show it to your doctor.

Knowing your family health history is a powerful tool to understanding the risks of illnesses. However, keep in mind that a family history of a specific illness may increase the risk but hardly ever guarantees that other family members will develop the illness.

The most important:
Parents, brothers, sisters and their children.

Also important:
Grandparents, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, half brothers and sisters.

If possible also get information:
Cousins, great-uncles and great-aunts.

4. How do I fill in the form?

"My Family Health Portrait" will be useful to collect and organize information regarding your family's health. No form can reflect all the variations of a family, so we recommend you use this document as a starting point and adapt it to the needs of your family.

First of all, write the name of each of your relatives in the indicated boxes, and circle whether the person is male (M) or female (F). In the next line, write the name of the medical conditions they have had. If you know the age when the specific medical condition was diagnosed, include this information in parentheses after the condition. For example, "diabetes (diagnosed at age 37)."

If a certain family member is deceased, write "deceased" the cause of death, if known, and the age at which they died. For example: "deceased due to heart attack (died at the age of 63)."

If they are twins, write "twin" in the first line for both persons. If they are identical twins, write "identical twins" in the first line for both persons.

If your family includes half-brothers or sisters, write "half brother" or "half sister" in the first line and put "other father" or "other mother" on the next line.

Some conditions are more common among people who share an origin or ancestry. It is important to record the ancestry of your relatives, and be as specific as possible. For example, if you know your grandmother is Hispanic and her family comes from Mexico, write "Mexican" underneath her name. Likewise, if your family is from Africa, Asia, Europe or South America, if possible, write the country they came from.

Once you have completed the "My Family Health Portrait", take it to your health professional so he can better individualize your medical care. Make a copy for your records and update them if circumstances change or if you get more information on the health history of your family.

Congratulations on taking this step towards a longer and healthier life!

"My Family Health Portrait" can be an effective element to improve your health, now and in the future.


1. What is genetics?

Genetics is the study of heredity. Genes are instruction manuals for making components called proteins; and proteins are combined in many ways to create all the parts of our bodies. The proteins also help to create unique characteristics of the body called traits. Some traits are visible, such as the color of the eyes. Others are not, such as the body's ability to fight certain illnesses. Scientists studying genetics are called geneticists.

2. Do we have the same genes?

Yes and no. Although the human genome is mainly the same for all people, there are small differences or changes. These genetic variations, spread across many genes, take up less than 1 percent of genetic material (DNA) in each person. So these variations are enough to create differences in appearance and health conditions in people. These differences are usually inherited, so, therefore, the closer two people are related, the more similar are their genetic material (DNA).

3. What does it mean when someone tells you that you have a genetic risk?

It means that you have inherited the tendency to develop a certain illness. Having a genetic risk does not mean you will develop a particular illness, but you are more likely to than if you had no risk. The genes, in part, will play the role in determining whether or not you will develop certain illnesses. If, for example, the father of your mother (your grandfather) had a history of heart disease, you may have inherited this genetic risk from genes that you got from your mother (which she got from her father); in the same way that you could have gotten straight or curly hair from your grandmother. But genes are not the only influences. What you eat, your level of physical activity, and other lifestyle factors will also affect your health.

4. How do scientists find genes that are related to human illness?

The researchers link genes to disease in two different ways:

  • Studying the illness:
    The scientists that look for the relationship between genes and illness very often start from the illness. For example, some types of breast cancer occur in certain families. Researchers suspect that, in these families, one or more genes are the cause of this cancer. To test this idea, scientists ask the family members to participate in a genetic study so that researchers can seek a genetic variation or combination of genetic variations that only occur in people who have breast cancer, and not in members of the family who do not suffer it.

  • Studying the genes:
    Sometimes research with lab animals has provided a lot of the basic information which lead scientists to suspect that certain genes, and the proteins they produce, can be linked to a particular illness. Look at heart disease as an example. Researchers have already identified many of the proteins that are important for the proper functioning of the heart. Some of these proteins affect the heart pumping and others regulate the levels of blood pressure or cholesterol in the blood. The scientists analyze the genes of these proteins, and then carry out DNA tests on a larger number of people, with the hope of finding certain patterns of genetic variation that appear over and over again in people with heart disease. These changes could serve as predictors of disease.

5. Why do researchers sometimes study racial and ethnic groups?

The genetic material in all humans is 99.9 percent identical. However, since the human genome is formed by 3 billion chemical units linked, one-tenth of the 1 percent difference in DNA between individuals can add millions of very small differences. The average difference between individuals is greater than between groups. People, who belong to groups that share the same ancestors, are more likely to have more similar genes than those who do not have as much kinship with each other. DNA studies with family members or people who have common ancestors make it easier for researchers to distinguish genetic differences linked to illnesses. The researchers study genes of people from different groups of populations between themselves, not to study racial and ethnic groups, but to find the genetic differences that are unique to certain diseases. Occasionally, however, scientists do research with members of certain groups because a disease is more common in them. For example, the gene linked to Tay-Sachs disease was identified in Ashkenazi Jews.

6. Have researchers been able to determine how changes in genes can cause disease?

They only know this with certain illnesses, and that generally genetic variations on their own do not cause illnesses. Complex illnesses that affect millions of people, for example, heart disease, depression, and cancer, are caused by variations in many different genes. They also have other factors such as diet, exercise, and the environment to which we are exposed. Researchers still have not identified most of these combinations of genes that cause illnesses and other factors. To discover the genetic variations that contribute to complex disorders, scientists must continue the quest to find the genetic variation that exists in all people.

7. What is family background?

Family background gives individuals reference to the information related to their health and their close relatives. It is one of the most important risk factors of developing health problems such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer (a risk factor is anything that increases the risk you have of getting an illness).

8. Why is it important that I know my family background?

The members of a family share their genes, as well as the same environment, habits and lifestyles. The family background helps identify people who are at higher risk of suffering an illness because it reflects both a person's genes and other shared risk factors.

9. My mother had breast cancer. Does this mean that I too will have cancer?

The fact that a family member has a disease may indicate that you are at higher risk of contracting it compared to someone who does not have a similar family background. This does not mean you will get the disease. Genes are just one of many factors that contribute to the appearance of illnesses. Other factors to consider include lifestyle habits such as diet and physical activity.

If you are at risk of getting breast cancer, consider following national guidelines for a healthy diet and regular exercise. It is also important to talk to your doctor about the risks you have and to follow guidelines for recommended screening tests (such as mammography) that may help detect the illness at an early stage, when it is easier to be treated.

10. Since both of my parents have suffered from heart disease, I know I have "bad" genes. Is there anything I can do to protect myself?

First of all, there are no "good" or "bad" genes. Most human illnesses, especially common illnesses like heart disease, are the result of the interaction of genes with the environment and a series of behavioural risk factors which can be modified. The best strategy for the prevention of illness which anyone can implement, especially those with a family background of an illness, include reducing risk habits (such as smoking) and adopting healthy habits (such as proper nutrition and regular physical activity).

11. How can the fact of knowing my family background help me to reduce the risk of suffering some illness?

You can not change your genes, but can change behaviours that affect health, such as smoking, inactivity and poor eating habits. People with a family background of chronic disease can benefit greatly if they make changes in their lifestyle. In many cases, making these changes can reduce the risk of contracting a disease even if this disease runs in the family.

Another change that you can do is to get screening tests such as mammograms for breast cancer and colonoscopies for colorectal cancer in order to improve chances of early detection of the disease. People with a family history of chronic disease can benefit greatly from careful monitoring which allows the analysis of risk factors and early detection of illness. This also often results in better long-term health outcomes.

12. How can I know my family's background?

The best way to discover your family background is to ask questions, talk about it at family gatherings, do a family tree and record your family's health information. If it is possible, review death certificates and medical records of the family.

13. What should I do with this information?

First of all, write down the information obtained about your family background and share it with your doctor. Secondly, remember to keep the information updated and share it with your siblings and their children. Thirdly, give this information to your children so that they, too, have a record of your family background.

14. What will the doctor do with this information?

The doctor will evaluate the risks you have of getting a disease based on family background and other risk factors. The doctor may also recommend activities that help to prevent diseases, such as increasing physical activity, changing your diet or performing tests for early detection of illnesses.

15. If I have no family background of any illness, does this mean that there is no risk?

Even when there is no information about a specific health problem in your family, you could still be at risk of contracting an illness. This could be because you may be unaware of an illness in some family member or you could have relatives that may have died at an early age, before they could get any chronic illness. The risk you have of getting a chronic illness is also influenced by many other factors, including your habits and your personal medical history.

16. Why are there only a few illnesses (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, breast cancer, colon cancer and ovarian cancer) in the list of my Family Health Portrait?

Several chronic diseases are among the most common, costly and avoidable. The Family Health Portrait focuses on only six chronic conditions (heart disease, stroke, colon cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and diabetes) because we have the best information to prevent these diseases if your family has a tendency towards them. However, it is important for your health that you know of any chronic diseases that have occurred in your family. This is the reason why this tool has blanks under Additional Illnesses for you to fill in and for you to mention to your doctor.

17. Why are other common types of cancer not listed in my Family Health Portrait?

People have a higher risk of suffering certain types of cancers (e.g. breast cancer or ovarian cancer) when they have occurred in other family members at an early age or in combination. Currently, genetic tests are an option for people who are suspected of having a hereditary form of breast cancer, ovarian cancer or colon cancer. Therefore, they are highlighted here. Nevertheless, it is important for your own health to know about any type of cancer that has occurred in your family. This is the reason why this tool has space for you to fill in this information and mention it to your doctor.

18. Is there a place in my Family Health Portrait where I can add other medical information, other than information about an illness?

The Family Health Portrait is designed to help people register their family's medical history. It is not intended as a general tool to gather other important medical information about you such as doctor visits, medications you are taking, surgery, immunization history, occupational issues or environmental factors. It is suggested that you record all this other information in a separate file that is easily retrievable and updated.

19. What aspects of the family health history affect my risk of getting an illness?

The family history of an illness is different in every person. The main features of a family health history that increase the risks are:

  • Illnesses that occurred at an age earlier than expected (10 to 20 years before most people contract the illness).

  • An illness in more than one close relative.

  • A disease that usually does not affect a certain gender (for example, breast cancer in a man).

  • Certain combinations of illnesses within a family (for example, breast and ovarian cancer, or heart disease and diabetes).

If a family has one or more of these features, then the family history is an important risk factor for the illness. Sometimes a pattern of illness in a family can be a sign of an inherited form of disease that is passed from generation to generation. In these families, the risk of contracting the illness can be very high, and the condition may occur at an early age. Often, a genetic counselor can help determine if someone has an inherited form of illness. Genetic tests also help identify family members at risk. These members may then schedule medical examinations and take the steps to reduce their risk.

20. What information should I collect and record in my family health tree?

The type of information gathered should include:

  • Major illnesses and the causes of death.

  • Age when the illnesses appeared and the age at death.

  • Ethnicity.

  • General information on lifestyle, like drinking and heavy smoking.

21. Who are the most important relatives I should include in the health history of my family?

Gather information about yourself, your children, siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces.