Last updated: Nov 01, 2007

When youve heard enough talk about politics, war, and Aunt Ednas award-winning rhubarb pie at your next family holiday gathering, try changing the subject to health—your relatives health. It doesnt sound sexy, but building a health family tree can help you live longer or even save the lives of loved ones.



“Its a really valuable tool,” says Henry Lynch, MD, director of the Heredity Cancer Center at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “And family get-togethers are a convenient time to gather the basics.” To make the information gathering easy, print out our Family-Health Questionnaire. Make copies and take them with you when you visit the relatives. Then …

Tell stories. Begin by asking relatives to tell a story about a deceased grandfather or great-grandmother. Where did she work? What did he look like? Do they have pictures? (Photos sometimes reveal physical hints of illnesses, like osteoporosis or skin conditions like psoriasis.) Reminiscing can lead to more-substantive discussions of actual health and illnesses, and is a nice way to ease into a subject that some older people might not be comfortable discussing.

Talk about why sharing is good. If the stories are slow in coming, gently remind relatives that almost every family has a health history of something. Sure, you want to celebrate the generations of family intelligence (or the family nose), but—for the good of all—you want to know about illnesses, too. If a problem does seem to run in the family, knowing it sooner rather than later can help other family members and future generations lower their risks.

Dig for details. What info is most useful? The ages when relatives died and the causes of death are key. Discovering that family members died around the same age can be a warning: You might have significantly elevated risks for the same problem. Knowing the age of onset can be very helpful, too. When a relative dies of cancer linked to an inherited gene, for example, the age of onset is often 10 to 20 years earlier than usual and typically affects family members around the same age.

Do more detective work. Dont stress if family members cant remember details. Just get the full names of your deceased relatives and try tracking down their death certificates, obituaries, or funeral home records, which often list a cause of death. Look at military records, diaries, and old letters. If those materials dont reveal anything useful, ask for a pathology or autopsy report from the hospital where your relative died, says Marc Brand, MD, surgical director of the Sandra Rosenberg Registry for Heredity and Familial Colon Cancer at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. (Youll probably need permission from the closest living relative.)

Or, start your search at one of these sites:

Divide and conquer. If your family is large, team up with siblings or cousins to gather information. You might talk to your mom about her health and her parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Maybe your sister or brother takes your dad. When you pool the info, look for patterns.

See your own doc. Ultimately, youll want to share your family tree with your own physician. Talk about risks, early-detection tests, and the value of genetic counseling. If you discover that your risks are high, lifestyle changes might help. And if you dont find anything worrisome? Maybe you can identify patterns of healthy living and follow them!