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Family Health History Day

   Every year since 2004, the Surgeon General has declared Thanksgiving Day to be Family Health History Day.  As genealogists we are frequently the keeper of this information, gathering data from death certificates or family interviews.   Have you shared this information with family members?  It’s time to prepare to have this discussion at Thanksgiving.

   One simple way to begin is with a basic pedigree chart listing cause of death in place of names.  Here’s a chart created back in 2013 and published on the FamilySearch Blog.    Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist, also referenced this on her blog a few weeks ago.  You can create this chart with your genealogy software, or even a spreadsheet.

   I’ve always been interested in health history.  In the early 1970s my four year old niece died of cystic fibrosis.  This is a recessive genetic disease which means both parents have to carry the gene in order to pass on the disease to their child.  If only one carries the gene, then the trait can be passed on to the child who would become a carrier.   Since my older sister carried the gene, there was a possibility that I too carried it, although at the time there was no test for a carrier.   In the 1990s when a test was developed I discovered I did carry the gene, although my younger sister did not.  I then tested by three daughters; two carry the gene and one does not.  When one of my daughters who is a carrier married last summer, her husband was tested and he does not carry the gene.  Because the chart above only looks at direct ancestors, it doesn’t tell the whole story.  

    Using Unlocking Your Genetic History by Dr. Thomas H. Shawker, I created a medical pedigree for myself and my children.  At the time, I had recently moved to Florida and was in the process of looking for doctors, and my children were also establishing medical contacts in their various localities.  I was getting frequent calls with questions like “what did Nanny die from?”  

    Medical pedigrees don’t include names, but just show relationships.  The arrow points to the starting person.  Circles represent women and squares for men, and a diagonal line indicates deceased.  There is a key which shows the various diseases.  The dot inside the boxes indicates a known carrier for cystic fibrosis.  The gray boxes indicate stomach cancer which I was tracking.  On my side there was a great deal of cancer, whereas on my husband’s side there was more heart disease.  Although there was no breast cancer on my side of the family, my husband had both a maternal and paternal aunt with early onset breast cancer, obviously a flag for our daughters.  

   Ethnicity is also important on a medical pedigree, as there are some diseases that are more prevalent in a particular ethnic group.  Cystic Fibrosis tends to occur in northern Europeans and Ashkenazi Jews and Sickle Cell Anemia in those of African heritage.  Ashkenazi Jews also tend to carry the BRCA I and II genes for breast cancer in higher numbers.  

   Not all illnesses are inherited or have a genetic component; some are environmental.  We know smoking causes lung cancer; tuberculosis was rampant in the 1800s; but knowing your health history and discussing it with your doctor can flag issues which can be tested and tracked.  Stomach cancer appears on both my maternal and paternal sides and it seems that I have always had stomach issues.  It is very curable in it’s early stages, but can be deadly if not caught.  I had an aunt who died in 1997 of the disease.  Because of the family history,  I arranged for a baseline endoscopy and it turned out that I had Barrett’s Esophagus, a pre-cancerous condition.  That was in the late 1990s and I go every 18 months for an endoscopy to check the condition which, because of medication has not progressed.   I am a big believer in sharing this information with family.

   So this Thanksgiving, do your family a favor and share the medical information you have.  It may save a life.

   Happy Hunting! 


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© Donna M. Moughty 2007- 2017