Using genealogy to discover family health history


1st Jan 2015 Life

Using genealogy to discover family health history

Worried about an inherited medical condition? If you have concerns you can take a look back in time.

Take a look at a family photograph…

Note the resemblances between you all—the same nose, chin, curly hair or smile will pass from generation to generation and give you all a sense of belonging together.

However, if you have even a passing interest in genealogy and family history, you will probably already be aware that other less obvious and potentially more sinister things may bind you than short legs or double-jointed thumbs. 

The immediate family tree

Even if you aren't already an avid family historian, it is worth your while taking this rather more prosaic approach to your family tree.

You will already know from your parents and grandparents which common "middle age" ailments run through your family, such as hypertension, high cholesterol, or osteoarthritis, but a little more detective work can unveil further clues to the less obvious, and may even help you with insurance and financial planning decisions. 

How can you start?

Your inner detective will no doubt be telling you to work with the facts you have, so start by noting your own age, general health, medical conditions, and any other useful information, such as whether you have a tendency towards headaches, or frequent coughs or colds. If you then do the same with your parents and your children, you are probably already starting to see a pattern.

For example, you might have inherited your migraines from your mother, and your high blood pressure from your father, and your children may have inherited your asthma.

Take this back another generation, and the pattern will take on new twists and turns; conditions which frequently skip a generation, such as glaucoma, may appear, flagging up a need to keep regular appointments with your optician. 

Death records

It's worth obtaining death certificates from further back too; where a cause of death is recorded, much can be learned about how our general health has changed and improved in the last century, and particularly since the creation of the NHS.

Although there's some truth in the idea that some people are just genetically pre-programmed to live to a ripe old age in good health, the achingly sad death certificates of their siblings who died in early childhood from the poignant "failure to thrive" could indicate genetic conditions such as cystic fibrosis, which may still be carried through the current generation.

Knowing what these clues may mean could be a useful decider for having a full health screen, especially if fractured family circumstances a few generations back might indicate that poor physical or mental health may have been the cause. 

Of course, modern medicine means that many of the health concerns, which affected and even shortened the lives of our ancestors can now be cured, or managed effectively, so a long line of men dying in their middle sixties from heart conditions isn't necessarily something to panic about.

However, it should prompt us to eat well, take plenty of exercise and bear in mind that it's not just our grandfather's red hair we could have inherited.