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Stories

Grow a healthy family tree

Adding health history saves lives

FamilyRooting out and recording one’s family history is a common hobby. And with websites, museums, and even televisions shows devoted to genealogical research, filling in the branches your family tree is easier than ever.

An area of your family history that usually does not end up on the family tree is your family health history, but this type of familial information is important to maintaining good health. If you know which illnesses run in your family, your medical provider can better assess your personal risks and help you be proactive in screening and treating diseases before symptoms become apparent.

"My Family Health Portrait"

Just as there are tools to help you trace your family’s genealogy, a tool is available online to help you and your family members gather and record your shared health history: the U.S. Surgeon General’s “My Family Health Portrait,” available at familyhistory.hhs.gov.

Your entire family health history in one place

My Family Health Portrait gives you a private place to keep track of your entire family health history. After entering your family health history, you can:

  • Learn about your risk for conditions that run in families.
  • Print your “family tree” to share with family or your health care provider.
  • Save your family health history so you can update it over time.

My Family Health Portrait does not keep a government record of your information or share it with anyone else without your permission. You may choose to share your online Portrait with a relative as a starting point for their own.

Take time to talk with your family

Before you get started, you should talk with your relatives to collect family health history information. Because this may be a difficult subject to broach, the Surgeon General recommends to:

  1. Start by making a list of blood relatives you need to include. The most important relatives are parents, siblings, and children, followed by grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, and half-siblings, and finally cousins and great aunts and uncles.
  2. Prepare your questions in advance to keep the conversation on track. Questions should pertain to personal diagnoses, including age of onset, as well as current medications and history of problems with pregnancies. You can also ask about other relatives, alive or deceased.
  3. Find the right time to talk. Would it be easier to have this conversation in-person, perhaps during a casual get-together, or over the phone? Be prepared with paper and pen or a laptop to take detailed notes. Alternatively, you could send the questions by mail or email for the recipient to fill out and return.
  4. Explain the reason for this discussion – to help save lives – and be respectful of your relative’s privacy and feelings.

Create your Portrait and share the information

Once you’ve collected this information, you can begin creating your own Family Health Portrait online. If you have gaps, try asking other relatives for help filling in the missing pieces. Overtime, as each family member’s health changes, remember to add new information to your Family Health Portrait. And don’t forget to print and share the Portrait with your medical provider.