This is the time to start planning for next summer - the most popular season for such events - so here are some tips and resources to help you get together with your far-flung relatives in person.
For even more on family reunions, see another previous MyHeritage Genealogy Blog post which provided more tips, resources and a 12-step "getting organized" outline to plan a family reunion.
Don't forget that your family website at MyHeritage is a great way to stay in touch with prospective family reunion attendees. Share pre-event planning and programs, and then provide - post-reunion - photos and videos of the reunion for the whole family to see. It will encourage those who didn't or couldn't attend the event to show up next time.
Americans celebrate Thanksgiving today - it is also the sixth annual National Family History Day, declared by the US Surgeon General.
Everyone should know their family medical history. The holidays are great times to get this project started, to collect information from the gathered generations and learn what they know about their own parents and grandparents.
Knowing as much of this information as possible may help assist children and grandchildren to be aware of family risks and recommendations. It will help you when you talk to your own doctor or other healthcare professional.
Most of us have been to a new doctor whose first questions for us concern what diseases or conditions are in our family. They ask about diabetes, heart disease, kidney problems, cancer, allergies. They might ask what your grandparents suffered from and when they died (very young, a long life?).
I would hazard a guess that we may know what our parents suffered from, and perhaps the medical conditions of our grandparents, but how many of us know much more than that? To learn more, talk to your relatives about their own ancestors. Write down what they say, even if they are using old medical terms. There are websites that provide current terminology for the old names, search for "old medical terms."
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.