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United States Department  of Veterans Affairs

Grandpa Had Diabetes? Why Your Health History Matters

Tracing family histories has become a popular pastime. Family ancestry websites have sprung up on the Internet and a recent TV series features celebrities in search of their past. A perhaps less glamorous, but very important, part of a family's legacy is its health history.

Old family photos scattered on tableFamily health histories matter because your risk of getting certain diseases and chronic conditions is higher if family members have or had them. Your health care team can provide better care when they are familiar with your family health history. For instance, if they know your grandfather or parent had diabetes, they can encourage you to watch your diet, stay active and get tested.

How Do I Find Information?

Collecting family health information may be easier for some people than for others. Here are some ways to go about it:

Ask Questions. One way to get health information about family members is to ask. Family vacations, visits or gatherings are good opportunities to ask questions. If you don't know how your grandparents or great grandparents died or want to know if anyone in your family has heart disease, talk to parents, aunts, uncles, cousins or siblings.

"Usually someone in the family will be fairly knowledgeable about health problems other family members might have had, especially if he or she has a health background," said Dr. William Weppner, a staff physician at the Boise, Idaho, VA Medical Center. See if you can get copies of family medical records. You might have to contact a doctor's office or hospital if your family members don't have them.

Locate Death Certificates. Death certificates include a person's age and cause of death. Try the state health department or county clerk's office where the family member(s) you're inquiring about died. Check the "Government" section of the phone book for phone numbers. You also can try the state's archives office.

Consult Family History Resources. Websites (most of them commercial), books and other resources with helpful information for putting together family trees might also be useful in tracking down family health histories.

How Do I Record Information?

While some people record health histories in a notebook or journal, paper copies could be lost or destroyed in a fire, flood or other natural disaster. Not having your medical history available to your health team when you may need it most could cause another disaster – to your health and safety.

Old family photos scattered on table

Avoid these problems by using a secure, online tool. My HealtheVet's "Health History" section  under "Track Health" lets you record your family health history, along with your personal health summary and military health history. The information you record is secure but you can make it available to your health care team and whoever else you care to entrust with it. You also can download it to your computer or another device, such as a thumb drive or CD, using VA Blue Button.

Keeping Current

Be sure to keep your family health history up to date and share the information with other family members and your health team. "Your family medical history should be something you go over with your provider periodically," said Weppner. "Providers don't do as good a job as they should of updating this information, so it's a good idea for patients to be proactive. When something comes up that's new, mention it to your provider."

Learn More

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Fact sheet on the importance of family histories to health


Updated/Reviewed: July 11, 2013

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