History can tell you a lot about how to stay healthy – your family’s history that is.  Doctors have long known that certain diseases can run in families, but new research is connecting the dots between genes and diseases to help providers personalize healthcare for each individual.

What scientists are learning is that a person’s genetic makeup may increase the risk for many adult-onset diseases like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.  But, DNA is not a destiny, because most diseases are not triggered by a single gene.  They are triggered by complex interactions between multiple genes, environmental factors, and lifestyle.  Or as geneticists are fond of saying, “Genetics loads the gun, but environment pulls the trigger.”

That’s good news for people who have been dealt a crummy genetic hand.  It means we may be able to suppress bad genes or possibly activate good ones if we play our hand right and practice healthy habits.

The easiest way to determine how your genetic inheritance could impact your health is to start assembling a family health history and discuss it with your healthcare provider.

If someone’s medical history shows several close relative died of heart disease, for example, a doctor might suggest more frequent screenings or advise the patient to exercise or to take other preventive actions.

In the future, when genetic testing becomes more common, family medical histories may also include DNA data.  Already, genetic tests are used to prescribe some drug therapies.  But genomic medicine is still in its infancy.  For most of us, the best window into our genetic risks is still the family health history.

Gathering Your History

A family medical history should include information for three generations, when possible.  Start with your immediate family: yourself, parents, siblings and children.  Next, branch out to add grandparents, aunts and uncles.

For each family member, aim to include the individual’s sex, birth date, ethnicity or nationality, health habits (smoking, weight, exercise, etc.), and if deceased, the age and cause of death.  Also note family members’ health conditions, especially those diseases with known genetic links — including cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, dementia, vision or hearing loss, arthritis, mental illness, asthma, miscarriage or infertility, substance abuse, and birth defects.

You can compile your medical history online with “My Family Health Portrait,” a web-based tool developed by the Surgeon General’s office.  It allows you to record information securely and print it or stare it electronically with family members and healthcare providers.

To use the tool or to read more about gathering information and talking to loved ones about sensitive health issues, visit: familyhistory.hhs.gov.

Keep it Current

Once you complete your health history, share it with your doctor and other family members.  And don’t forget to update it with new births, deaths, and information about relatives’ illnesses.  Consider it your health legacy.

What if I am Adopted?

Locating family health information may be challenging if you are adopted, but some adoption agencies do keep medical records on birth parents.  Local health and social service agencies or the National Adoption Clearinghouse may also be able to help.  Find out more at www.childwelfare.gov.

**This article was reprinted with permission from H2U. For more information on how to join H2U and receive our monthly newsletters, click here.