Researchers are increasingly focused on the hereditary nature of health risks. Ailments ranging from heart disease to Alzheimer’s to macular degeneration and schizophrenia are all tied to genetics.

But if you want to understand what’s lurking in your genes, you probably shouldn’t start with a barrage of high-priced, often-unproven genetic tests. Instead, you can do your own research by creating a family health history – it’s free. And, once you have it, you can consult with your doctor or a genetic counselor about what action you should take, including possibly one of those genetic tests.

You can start your research online, with sites that offer advice and interactive tools for creating a family health history. For tips, the nonprofit Genetic Alliance and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are good places to start.

There are also sites that will help you create records that you can share with doctors and relatives. The Office of the Surgeon General’s online family history tool is available at It allows results to be emailed or integrated into digital health records. NorthShore University HealthSystem also offers a family history tool. Researchers at Ohio State have a tool for assessing risk of heart disease and cancer.

But the heart of your research will be the questions you will ask your own relatives. You want to gather information about at least three generations of your family, and more if possible. Seek out older relatives. You should be asking about health problems, including conditions that may not seem serious such as benign colon polyps, and causes of death. Diagnostic information such as the date of onset or the type of cancer can be important. You may also want to check death records, if information isn’t available or older family members’ memories are limited.

When gathering family health histories, stay alert for patterns that may signal undiagnosed conditions, such as a history of unexplained sudden deaths. Among other things, this can signal heart problems such as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. Repeat miscarriages may be a sign of a chromosomal condition that, while not obvious in a parent, can result in a fetus that isn’t viable.

To be sure, family health histories can be tough to gather. Often, relatives with important knowledge have passed away. Older kin who are still living may be reluctant to discuss health issues, or they may simply be hard to reach. Family gatherings such as reunions can be good settings to broach these subjects. In addition, relatives can sometimes jog one another’s memories.

Once you’ve gathered the information, you should bring a printout to your next doctor’s appointment. Though physicians often lack the time to gather an in-depth history, it’s easier for them to glance at something you’ve already created, or answer specific questions you may raise. Based on that information, a physician may decide to check your blood sugar or do other tests that could pinpoint an undiagnosed condition.

Research has shown that many primary-care doctors aren’t confident about their ability to advise patients about genetic issues, so you may also want to seek out a genetic counselor. They can help identify patterns in the family records and suggest additional questions to ask to fill in blanks. Counselors can be found through the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

One thing to keep in mind is that a federal law passed in 2008 is supposed to protect Americans against genetic discrimination. The law prohibits employers and health insurers from forcing people to answer questions about genetic-test results or family health history. It also blocks them from using such information in hiring or coverage decisions. Information about the law can be found online at

But the law didn’t cover life insurance, long-term-care insurance or disability insurance. Companies that offer such coverage can use information about potentially inherited health risks in setting your rates.

Related Articles:

Filed under: Diseases & Treatments