Medical Genealogy


Have you ever noticed that some branches of your family live longer than others? Do those who have succumbed have a common cause of death? Do certain diseases run in your family? What could this mean to you and your descendants?

Family health history also known as medical genealogy has become a special interest among family history researchers. Genetic research has shown that some illnesses today were inherited from ancestors. Creating a family health history can be a useful tool for you and your health care professional in interpreting health issues for you and perhaps your offspring. Some conditions might even give you cause to have second thoughts about ever having any children. Others may give you a warning for changing some of your habits. This knowledge can make you more aware of early disease symptoms and consequently get medical attention earlier.

How do you predict what some of these diseases might be? In some cases there are genetic tests to determine if you or your spouse are carriers of those genes. In others, collecting family data from relatives and ancestors will contains clues. How do you go about getting this information? There are a variety of resources available. Begin with what you know. Record your medical facts and then go back a generation to your parents, and from there to your grand parents.

  • Talk with your relatives and record their health conditions and what they remember about their parent’s health. Be sure to record when the conditions occurred. Was your relative born with it or did it occur in later years? Assure your relatives that their medical history will remain private and is only for you, your descendant’s and your health care professional’s use.
  • For deceased ancestors, check death certificates and obituaries, which often list a cause of death. Pension documents, Social Security applications, family Bibles, diaries, old letters and military records may offer some clues.
  • Trace your ethnic background, some diseases like Tay Sachs or Sickle Cell Anemia occur in particular groups.
  • Look for major illnesses like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
  • Note general patterns of ill health, like chronic sore throats, continued aches and pains
  • Birth defects
  • Allergies, both environmental and drug related

When you learn that a relative or ancestor has/had a specific disease, begin to research the disease to learn all you can about it. Some diseases come from “bad genes” and others are a response to environmental triggers. If you know your familial predisposition to certain diseases, you can often do things to prevent them from occurring or to lessen it’s impact. Check with your doctor. She will know what types of medical screenings and tests you can do to get ahead of or prevent them. The more you know about your family’s disease track record, the better you will be able to make an informed decision. A family medical history can’t predict your future health, but it can provide information about risk.The information you gather may save a life!

There are several websites that will help you create your family health history . One is My Family Health Portrait , a tool from the Surgeon General. The Family Tree Maker program has a place where you can record medical information and causes of death.


Billie Nicholson, Editor
December 2017

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