Both the "big killers" such as breast cancer and heart disease, as well as less common diseases such as hemophilia or anemia, run in families. "Tracing the illnesses suffered by your parents, grandparents, and other blood relatives can help your doctor predict the disorders to which you may be at risk and take action to keep you and your family healthy," advises the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Much like creating a genealogical history, creating a medical history starts by talking to relatives. Thanksgiving is a perfect time to speak to many relatives at once. But while a glass of wine and a plateful of turkey may get people talking freely about a sometimes touchy subject, creating a family medical history still requires preparation and tact.
How to Start a Family Health History
The Surgeon General‘s office, in their report "Before You Start Your Family Health History," recommends that you list all of the relatives you need to speak to as well as a list of questions. Remember that your immediate family's medical information is the most relevant. These relatives include your parents, siblings, and children. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews and half-siblings will have the second-most relevant information. "It is also helpful to talk to great uncles and great aunts, as well as cousins," advises the Surgeon General.
Health and Genealogy Questions for Living Relatives and Common Ancestors
Before beginning, be sure to explain clearly to everyone what you are doing. Add that the completed history will benefit everyone, but also prepare a way of sharing the information with everyone. One option is the "My Family Health Portrait Online Tool" on the Surgeon General's website. Results can be printed out and given to elderly relatives who don't have online access.
The Surgeon General provides a list of questions to ask relatives about their health histories:
- Do you have any chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes? - Have you had any other serious illnesses such as cancer or stroke? - How old were you when you developed these illnesses? - Have you or your partner had any difficulties with pregnancies such as miscarriages? - What medications are you currently taking?
While their information may not be as medically relevant to you, the same questions apply to your ancestors. Older relatives may be able to tell you what illnesses or disabilities grandparents, great-grandparents or even great-great-grandparents had. The Surgeon General's office has a recommended list of genealogy-related questions as well, which include the following:
- What is our family's ancestry? - What country did we come from? - Has anyone in the family had learning or developmental disabilities? - What illnesses did our late grandparents have? - How old were they when they died? - What caused their deaths?
Family Health History: Understanding the Answers, Genealogy-Style
A family's medical history can be filled with just as many misunderstandings, half-truths and secrets as their genealogical history. The methods you've used to gather genealogical information from relatives will come in handy here. Ask simple questions one at a time. Ask follow-up questions as needed such as, "what type of diabetes?," and don't forget the golden rule for all genealogists: document everything!
Documentation will be especially necessary if relatives are giving you cause of death or medical history on ancestors. Your grandfather's death from colo-rectal cancer may just be remembered as "cancer," but the "colo-rectal" part is an important detail, especially if he died young. The Surgeon General recommends getting copies of medical records to verify information. If you have birth and death certificates for ancestors gathered during your genealogy searches, review those as well.
It might not always be easy, but you will learn a lot of valuable genealogical and medical information from taking time this holiday season to put your genealogy skills to medical use. It might be even valuable enough to save your life.