When you go to the doctor for the first time, you are asked to give a history of your medical problems. You should also be asked about the history of medical problems in your close family members—as well as those that may have been present in distant relatives going back at least two generations, to your grandparents or even great-grandparents. Many common, treatable diseases can be the result of a combination of environmental factors and genetic factors received from our ancestors. With the diversity of genes, we are the product of no less than eight generations of relatives.

The U.S. Office of Public Health Genomics officially and formally acknowledged the importance of family history in 2002, when it launched the Family History Public Health initiative. This effort strives to inform the general population about the importance of knowing and recording diseases from progenitors. It also researches links between family history and such common health risks as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.

With advances in medicine, people are more able to have a more exact understanding of the conditions our relatives have or had. By carefully assessing and archiving that information, we are better able to understand our relative susceptibility to these conditions.

In this way, we may be able to prevent or intervene early upon certain conditions that otherwise would interfere with our quality of life. Small symptoms that may otherwise be overlooks can paint an entirely different picture when your health care provider already knows what to look for, thanks to the mapping of family history provided upon your initial consult.

The importance of chronicling family history is not only valid for individuals, but for communities as well. The knowledge gained can also be applied to the understanding of disease inheritance that can impact how medicine is developed and practiced as a whole.

It all starts with doing a little homework. Attached is the Family Tree of Health used by the offices of Dr. Levine. Use this and bring it with you when you see your general health practitioner so that you can discuss the importance of your family history of health.

For more information, you can visit a dedicated family health site through the National Institute of Health or download your own copy of Family Medical History in Disease Prevention AMA. Members can feel free to raise any questions they may have with Dr. Richard A. Levine directly, or submit inquiries through the Consult the Doctor form at Priority Concierge MD.