Why do so many people get involved with tracing their family's ancestry and roots?
Genealogists and family historians will say that there are many reasons including:
- Unraveling history's mysteries
- Learning where, how and why and how our ancestors lived
- Discovering famous ancestors
- Digging up skeletons in our closets
- Leaving our legacy to future generations
- Tracking genetic traits along with genealogy
That last point will help future generations understand their family's health history. Certain genetic conditions run in various ethnic or religious groups.
What's in your family? High cholesterol or blood pressure, heart disease or cancer, Alzeimer's or diabetes? Do you know? Have you investigated death certificates and the causes of death?
Certain genetic conditions are found frequently in different groups such as sickle cell disorder in African Americans, Tay-Sachs in Ashkenazi Jews and Cajuns and a host of other conditions. Great strides have been made in genetic testing for a long list of conditions such as: Vietnamese, thalassemia; Finns, congenital nephrosis; and Northern Europeans, cystic fibrosis.
How can you collect this information? The best way is to talk to your family at lifecycle events or at holiday gatherings. Gather information on the family's ethnicity, race and origins, health history of each branch (was there diabetes, cancer, heart disease?) and lifestyle questions (smoking, medical care, etc.)
Listed below are various online resources you can use to help answer some of these questions. When you have collected this information, bring it to your doctor or other healthcare professional. You might be referred to a genetics specialist or your doctor might advise making changes to your lifestyle and diet. Share the information with your family so they will also know of the possibility of risks.
There is also a bioethics component to this area of genealogical research. Some important questions may be: Do you really want to know about your risk or a family trait? What should you share with your family? There is more information on this component in the resource list below.
How can you start working on this important aspect of your family's health history? Family Tree Magazine's "nine steps to a family health history" may help:
- Interview family
- Find death certificates
- Search for obituaries
- Examine cemetery and funeral records
- Check mortality schedules
- Look for insurance records
- Find military service and pension records
- Research hospital and other medical records
- Learn about previous genetic testing in your family
Here's a list of record types that can help you compile this information: Cemetery records, censuses, civil registers (vital records), funeral home records, hospital records, mental institution records, military records, newspaper notices and physicians’ accounts.
A source not usually listed are historic photographs that may contain hints of a medical condition. One could look for swollen hands or legs (that could indicate possible heart disease or arthritis or a number of other conditions), drooping eyelids, differences in right and left sides of a body (perhaps indicating a past stroke or other paralysis), If you have a photo of someone that may raise questions as to the subject's health, ask a doctor to look at it.
Your ancestors' journals and diaries may also contain health information, if you are fortunate enough to have some of these to look at.
What kinds of questions should you ask relatives during your interviews? An article by Barbara Krasner-Khait in Family Tree Magazine a few years ago covered just that:
- Are there any unusual traits?
- Were there miscarriages or stillbirths?
- Was anyone extremely obese or thin?
- Who suffered from major diseases?
- Did anyone have reconstructive surgery?
- Who was hospitalized, for what and how long?
- Did cousins marry cousins? (Common just a generation or two ago in some groups)
- Did anyone abuse alcohol or drugs?
- Did anyone suffer from recurring maladies, such as allergies (and to what), headaches and others?
A good time to ask these questions is when families gather at important civil and religious holidays, such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, Passover, July 4th or others. For the past few years, the US Surgeon-General has asked the public to do this during the Thanksgiving Weekend (end of November) family gatherings.
Find the Surgeon General's "My Family Health Portrait" online to complete and print it out to show your doctor. The internet-based tool makes it easy to record your family health history. It assembles the information and makes a family tree you can download. Your information is not kept online, but the printout gives you a health history to share with your family or your doctor.
Many terms on old death records are archaic terms for contemporary diseases and medical conditions. Find the old and modern names online at Antiquus Morbus.
Antiquus Morbus is a collection of archaic medical terms, along with old and modern definitions. The primary focus of the site is to help decipher 19th century or older causes of death found on mortality lists, death certificates and church death records. The site is frequently updated as new information is received. The intention is to collect and record old medical terms in all European languages. Currently, the English and German lists are the most extensive. Readers may also submit unknown terms to the site for analysis, so do visit the site, which also provides an excellent Links section for even more online information.
How can you help your family's future generations? Record causes of death and health information you have discovered. As you interview relatives, record and build your family health history to pass down. Help by cooperating in genetics studies for ethnic or religious groups; your data may be important. And, of course, make sure others will benefit from your compiled genealogy records.
For more information on genetic disorders, click ProGenealogists.com, which provides information on various genetic patterns and definitions.
Genealogy and genetics can save lives by providing a family's history and noting consanguinity (cousin marriage), finding a founder ancestor and identifying who may be at risk now or in the future.
There is also a bioethics component to this part of genealogical research and important questions may be: Do you really want to know about your risk or a family trait? What should you share with your family?
University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics
ELSI (Ethics, Legal and Social Issues)
MedlinePlus: Genetic Testing (National Institutes of Health)
Genetic Alliance offers booklets in English and Spanish.
Does It Run In The Family
American Society of Human Genetics has an extensive list of resources here.
Cultural Partnerships offers an informative brochure excellent brochure. "Does it run in the family?: A Guide to Family Health History"
Here's an interesting video on health records and genealogy:
Are you including health history in your family history records? If not, why? I look forward to reading your comments.