Genealogy for the Future: Issue 4– Medical History is a Must Do If You Want a Complete Family Tree

It’s obvious that the physical traits in your appearance come from your family- that the color of your hair, your eyes, whether you have freckles or a crooked nose- these are all things you can immediately tie to your parents and such.  How many times have you heard “You’ve got your grandfather’s chin” or “Aunt Charlene had the brightest red hair- just like you do?” I mean, our bodies had to come from somewhere, right?  What many fail to realize is that what we see is not the only thing we get from our family.

It’s a long known fact that most health related issues are passed down genetically- from whether or not you need glasses to your cholesterol levels, whether you suffer from depression to what type of arthritis you have as well as many cancers.  This fact makes a comprehensive medical history an important tool to help you better understand what your risks are and how to prevent things from actualizing where possible.  By recognizing what diseases you’re at risk for you can make informed decisions about prevention and screening.

A comprehensive medical history can help with:

  • Determining your risk for certain diseases
  • Calculating your risk of passing certain conditions to your children
  • Diagnosing a medical condition
  • Determining which preventative measures would help you best to lower your risk of a specific disease
  • Determining which tests are most appropriate
  • Identifying and notifying other members of your family who are at risk of developing certain diseases

Some studies have shown that over 40% of the population is at risk for a common disease like heart disease, cancer or diabetes – and that number is rising.  Other diseases immediately linked to genetics include but are certainly not limited to:

  • Cardiovascular disease (hypertension, stroke, clotting, PAD, etc)
  • Osteoporosis and Arthritis
  • Obesity
  • Reproductive issues
  • Mental Illness including Depression, Schizophrenia, Addiction

Most of the material I’ve read on the subject suggests gathering data from at least 3 generations since it is they who are most likely to influence or reflect your own genetic build.  My opinion is that you cannot ever have too much information in this area, since things sometimes skip a few generations then reappear; but, 3 generations is a great place to start.  This includes your parents, grandparents and great grandparents as well as all of their children and perhaps even your own children.   The information you are looking for ranges from the obvious (who died and what was the cause) to the not so.  Find out what conditions your family members have/had, when they were first diagnosed, their treatment, what surgeries were had, and pay attention to possible environmental contributors (for example, did they work in asbestos or eat fatty foods all the time, smoke, exercise, etc).   If they died of a cancer, find out specifically what kind and not just where it metastasized.

Any and all data you can gather will be useful in creating a complete family medical history, but (again, according to my various readings) the most important items to document seem to be:

  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Asthma and Allergies
  • Mental illness and Alcoholism or other addictions
  • High blood pressure / Low blood pressure
  • Stroke and other Cardiovascular Disorders such as Aneurism
  • Kidney disease or other Organ based diseases such as with the liver
  • Birth defects and/ or Learning disabilities
  • Country of origin (some diseases seem to have roots in region and this can be useful)

Documenting the family medical history can be recorded any number of ways, but the most efficient seems to be using standardized symbols (with a legend) in a pedigree format (like a medical family tree).   For example, gender can be noted with shape and deaths can be noted with a strikethrough while cancer can be noted with a C.  (Doctors don’t need to know names, but you may find it impersonal to use symbols for family members- do what’s right for you).    The simplest and most logical system will be the easiest to relay- and you can probably find the standard medical notations online or by asking your doctor.


If your family is deceased or otherwise unable to help you it will probably take some real detective work on your part to learn more about your medical past.  Medical records would be the obvious first choice, but if you can’t access those, there are some other avenues to try:  death certificates, autopsy reports, obituaries, newspaper archives, old family letters, even old photos can give clues.  A good springboard for resources to learn more on the topic is through your doctor or online with the CDC: http://www.cdc.gov/genomics/famhistory/famhist.htm

If this all proves a bust, you can always try having your genes mapped (probably not cheap though) – certain diseases or inclination toward certain diseases are right there in your DNA- and while the human genome is far from completely mapped, the known markers might help to tell your story when nothing else will…this is also a decent idea for the adopted, since that information is usually sealed by the courts or otherwise unavailable (which is unfortunate, since it’s so important!)   www.genome.gov

If nothing else seems to work, be sure to follow the standard screening procedures and timeframes and consult your doctor regularly so that relationship is there and things have a better chance of being recognized before they get out of hand.

And DON’T FORGET!  Keeping a detailed record of your own medical history (as well as your children and other relevant family members) will only serve to aid those generations to come.



In the next issue:  ANTIQUE MEDICAL TERMS

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