Smiling parents holding young children at beach

This holiday, create a family health tree

December 22, 2015 | UCI Health
Female family members talking

Holiday celebrations offer a great opportunity to learn more about your relatives — including your family’s medical history. While chatting with your Aunt Edna over eggnog, you may discover that diabetes runs in the family, or that several relatives battled the same form of cancer.

Rather than a downer, such conversations can lead to the creation of a “family health history tree” that offers information to help you and your descendants have a healthier future.

Hunting down family history

“It’s helpful to know if there is any history of coronary heart disease, for example, so your doctor can screen for it and prevent heart attacks in you and your children,” says UCI Health geriatrician Dr. Sonia Sehgal. “There’s no need to dig for details such as whether they smoked or what they ate.”

Many diseases such as cancer, diabetes, heart disease and Alzheimer’s are more commonly found in families. Knowing that several first-degree relatives — parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles — have had a certain condition may suggest you all face a higher risk of developing the disease.

This knowledge can help you and your medical provider decide what action to take to keep you fit and well, Sehgal says. This may include:

Tell me about…

Some relatives love to talk about their health or latest surgery, but others shy away from the topic. So how do you get the facts without taking the merry out of their holiday?

“One way to approach it is to say you are creating a family tree, and you would like to go over your family’s history. During the conversation, you can inquire about health issues for relatives and then record those on the family tree,” says Sehgal.

“That way, the focus isn’t so much on the medical aspect, but you still get the information you’re looking for and also learn a little bit about your family.”

Free online help

A free online tool, My Family Health Portrait, was developed by the U.S. Surgeon General’s office and can help you. The web-based software creates a family health history tree that you can download and share with your doctor and relatives. You also have the option of sharing your tree with other family members, who can add their information.

At your next family gathering, now you’ll have not only something to talk about, but also a gift that may help you all to live longer, healthier lives.

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