Collecting Family Health History One Step At A Time

The amount of information there is to collect in a family health history can seem overwhelming.  It is recommended that a family health history include information on at least three generations, which includes grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, and children. The number of people to contact can add up quickly, and you might not be able to get the information you need right away. 

Don’t let the size of the project discourage you because even the smallest amount of initial information can be useful.  It can help to think of a family health history as a “living document,” or an ongoing project. Just as history is ongoing, a family health history is never truly “complete.” Your health history will only get more useful as you are able to gather more information over time.

Don’t feel like making phone calls right away?  Sit down with a pen and paper, and fill out what you know.  Begin with your own health history, including chronic complaints or conditions, any history of surgeries or difficulties with mental health, and lifestyle elements like occupation, diet, and exercise habits.  (For a complete list of things to consider, see the Does it Run in the Family Toolkit at 

Then think back to what you can remember of your parents and siblings, and take note of those facts as well as their age and occupation.  Just by taking a few spare minutes to collect preliminary information, you have already created a living family health history. Just thinking about the things you already know about your family’s health can help you tailor the questions you would like to ask your family members when you finally do get the chance to speak with them about their own health histories.

A simple pedigree can be drawn up on a piece of paper or easily on the computer.  These slides from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will walk you through the steps of making your own family health history in the form of a pedigree.  Get started today by just writing down what you know.  Try to gather small amounts of information each time you see a family member, or better yet, use the family health history to get back in touch with family you haven’t had a chance to speak to in awhile.  Share the new information that you’ve collected with your doctor each time you have an appointment so that he or she can also keep track of your family history as well.

Even the smallest amount of information can be helpful in finding out the best ways you can lead a healthy lifestyle, so start collecting today.