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Health History Monday


According to the Department of Health and Human Services, less than 33 percent of Americans have written records of their family health history. Many diseases and chronic conditions, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol, have genetic risk factors that can be identified through learning your family health history. Knowing your family history is an important step to identifying key areas in which you can educate yourself about other environmental and lifestyle behaviors that may minimize your risk for various health conditions.

Investigating your family health history begins with a conversation with your family; reunions and gatherings are often a good place to start. Speak with parents, older relatives, cousins, and other extended family. Try mapping out a family tree for both sides of the family, and write down pertinent information for each individual including:

  • Birth date/current age or age at death
  • Medical problems, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, asthma, mental illness, stroke, kidney disease, alcoholism, birth defects, learning problems/mental retardation, vision/memory loss at early age, etc.
  • Age at which above medical conditions occurred and/or began
  • Personal/behavioral habits that may have been related to their condition

The U.S. Surgeon General offers My Health Portrait, an online tool to help individuals complete their health histories. Remember to update your log every few years and to pass it on to siblings, children, and other family members.

Once you have completed your family health history, make plans to share it with your physician. He or she may help you adopt healthy behaviors, such as not-smoking, exercising, and healthy eating, that can reduce your risk for disease even if it runs in your family. Moreover, they may be able to suggest appropriate preventive screenings you can use to identify early onset of any conditions and promote long-term health.

Clarke Tankersley, a Johns Hopkins physiologist who studies factors relating to genetic predisposition, agrees that it is important to “raise awareness about family history of complex disease traits, but also to recognize that these disease traits occur through a complex interaction of many susceptibility factors. Other factors that predispose individuals to disease can act across generations, even though these factors may not be genetically determined. For example, when you eat the same food that your parents do, live at the same socioeconomic status as your parents, and reside in your parents’ house for many years, these factors interact with genetic predisposition to ultimately lead to disease.”

Ultimately, knowing your family's health history can bring you one step towards a healthy lifestyle, so make the commitment now to learn yours!

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Every Monday, the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, part of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, offers tips for preventing disease and injury, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Check back each week for new tips or visit our archive.