a grandmother helps her grandson fill out a questionnaire on family medical history

Asking about Family Medical History

Understanding your family medical history can be important. It can influence all sorts of decisions throughout your life: everything from helping your doctor make decisions about what screening tests should be run at various points in your life, to estate and end-of-life planning. But getting that family history can be difficult. Sitting down and grilling your parents about their recollections of how their parents and aunts and uncles died, and what symptoms they had towards the end of their life might not seem particularly appealing, but a surprising number of diseases and conditions have at least some hereditary factors:

  • Alzheimer’s disease or dementia Arthritis
  • Asthma
  • Birth defects
  • Cancers
  • Diabetes
  • Depression
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Pregnancy complications
  • Stroke

However, it’s worth noting that this reticence to discuss these things is a distinctly modern, American (and slightly weird) phenomenon. You can use that to your advantage, to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Discussing family medical history is a great opportunity to get your kids interacting with their grandparents. Everyone will get something good out of it. The youth and elderly will get to spend some quality time together, and you’ll learn more than you probably wanted to know about your family history.

Depending on the age of your children, you can make this part of a school project, or use it to help start your own conversations with your children about the nature of death. Obviously, you’ll want to steer the conversation in a way that’s appropriate for your child’s age, and that will likely start by you screening the questions. A great place for you to start thinking about appropriate questions is either this form from Utah’s health department, or this online tool from the Department of Health and Human Services (depending on whether your preference leans more towards pen-and-paper, or the Internet).

Either way, use those tools as a starting point, and tailor your own family medical history questionnaire that’s appropriate for your child.