Collect your family health history this holiday season

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Collect your family health history this holiday season

I’ve never been a huge fan of the holiday season, except for the part where I get a bunch of free stuff and my brother-in-law suggests that Bad Santa is the perfect family film. But one way I can definitely see sprucing it up is to ask my parents to predict how I’m going to die.

Like Zoltar, my parents probably don’t have the tools necessary to make an accurate prediction, but their knowledge of my family health history is still an important piece of the puzzle when it comes to taking care of myself. For example, because I know that both sides of my family have a history of heart disease, I know not to eat a Big Mac every day.

Family health history is also an important way that insurers calculate your premiums for products like life insurance, long-term disability insurance, and long-term care insurance. Even if you’re healthy now, your genes can shed some light onto how your health may change in the future. Insurers look into other factors, as well, including your current health, your lifestyle, and your hobbies.

Knowing ahead of time how your family health history may affect your life insurance premiums, for example, can help you pick an insurer who looks at that condition more favorably. (We actually rank life insurers based on this information in our insurer reviews.) Some of the diseases that life insurance companies are on the lookout for include diabetes, invasive cancers, heart disease, and other genetic disorders.

The holidays are a perfect time to talk to your parents about your family health history. For starters, it’s way less awkward than just calling them up out of the blue to ask them how everyone in your family died. Plus, you have the added effect of food / alcohol putting everyone into a pretty talkative mood.

Below, we outline some tips on how to ask your parents about your family health history. These tips are good year round, but these questions are way more fun to ask over some turkey and apple pie.

Important family health information to collect

It’s not enough to know that your dad’s side of the family has heart trouble. You need to create a dossier of information on your family’s health, and the more detailed you can be, the better. Some examples of the basic information you need to collect:

  • Name and relationship (sibling, parent, etc.)

  • All major health conditions

  • Date and age of diagnosis

  • Cause and age of death (if applicable)

You may also want to ask your family members more in-depth questions about their health:

  • Are you a smoker, and if so, for how long?

  • What lifestyle changes have you made to stay healthy?

  • Do you have any allergies?

Because these questions can get very personal, it may make sense to pull your relative aside and ask these questions in a private space. If you can, give them a few day’s warning that you have some questions to ask them once you get together to celebrate the holiday.

Know that you might not be able to get every piece of information that you need – dates are hard to remember, and your parents may not know when your grandparents were diagnosed with certain conditions. Collect as much information as you can and follow up with your parents or other relatives later.

You should talk to your parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews about their health histories, according to the CDC.

Where to keep your family health history

The Surgeon General’s office actually created a tool called My Family Health Portrait, which you can use to save this dossier. You can also use an Excel spreadsheet, Google Doc, pen and paper, or, if you’re a crazy person like me, a relational database.

Next steps

Once you have a partial or full family history, you can sit down with your doctor and start looking at strategies for how to deal with potential health conditions before you’re even diagnosed. Let’s go back to my example of heart disease. If both sides of your family have a history of heart disease, you need to do more than just avoid hamburgers. You should start an exercise regimen and create a strict diet that cuts out food connected to heart disease.

Using your family health history, you’ll also be able to get a better handle on how much insurance products like life insurance, long-term disability insurance, and long-term care insurance will cost you. For more information on how family history can affect your life insurance quotes, check out our article (if you have a family history of cancer, you’ll find more specific information here).