You know the phrase “What’s past is prologue?” It’s a quote from William Shakespeare, but it can apply to so many things—including your own health.

Because families share so many traits and lifestyle habits, family members may be at higher risk of developing similar diseases. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), most people have at least one chronic disease diagnosed in family members, such as cancer, heart disease or diabetes.

When you know your health history—which is a list of the different health conditions and diseases you know have impacted people in your family—you’re better equipped to take action to try and prevent those illnesses in your own life, and even the lives of your children. For example, if someone in your family had colorectal cancer, you may be more likely to get colorectal cancer. That means it’s important that you talk to your doctor so he or she can screen for it and share early warning signs. People with a family history of diabetes are more likely to develop prediabetes and diabetes. If you know that your risk may be higher, you can make an effort to incorporate healthy habits that could help prevent diabetes; you can also share that information with your doctor, so that he or she can perform any necessary tests and share advice on prevention.  

It’s never too soon to chart your health history. Creating a record is something you can do on your own, or you can access worksheets created by the National Human Genome Research Institute to share with family. Read on for tips on who to talk to and what to ask. Then, be sure to share that information with your health care providers, so they can help you to make informed decisions about your health and habits, as you strive to feel your best.

What’s past may be prologue, indeed—but it may also be preventable.

1. Know which family members to talk to. You don’t need to track down your grandfather’s third cousin twice removed for this exercise. Rather, consider the living relatives that are closer to you, genetically speaking, and make a list. The CDC recommends talking to parents, siblings and children. If possible, you could also touch base with grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews and half-siblings.

2. Ask the right questions. You’re trying to learn about any chronic diseases that could be in your family. Rather than phrasing the question broadly, it can help to ask a series of questions and list different conditions to which you could be predisposed. The CDC suggests asking relatives the following:

  • Do you have any chronic diseases, such as heart disease or diabetes, or health conditions such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol?
  • Have you had any other serious diseases, such as cancer or stroke?
  • How old were you when each of these diseases and health conditions was diagnosed?
  • Do you know our family’s ethnic background?
  • For relatives who have died, what caused their death and how old were they?

3. Record and share the info. As you gather responses, write them down on paper or create a spreadsheet. Be sure and record it in a way that others will be able to understand. After all, this is a list you’ll want to share with health care professionals as well as other family members, so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.

4. Take it to heart—literally. While your doctor’s input on screenings, tests and prevention is important, remember that you play a huge responsibility in your own health! The risk for many diseases that are shared among family members—such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers—may also increase as a result of certain lifestyle choices.

Reflect on the health of your family members and decide whether you should make similar or different choices. A good basic plan for optimal health includes regular exercise, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, avoiding cigarettes and tobacco products, managing stress and getting enough sleep. Those are all things that you can control. And they’re worthwhile habits to introduce to your entire family, as a way of shaping your history as you move forward.