13    Sep 20102 comments

The Importance of Family Medical History

A key part of compiling your family history has to do with researching when family members lived and died.

With a little bit of extra work, however, you can turn your research from a tool that can help you find out more about your past, to one which can also help you find out more about your future.

That little bit of extra work I'm speaking about is tracking your family medical history and knowing more about this can play a large role in helping you and your family understand the genetic health risks that you may be predisposed to in future.

So how do you go about tracking your family medical history?

Often it's just an extension of your typical family history research. For instance death certificates, which are a key part of the family research toolkit, have specific details on causes of death. Generations ago, many genetic disorders resulted in death, so this is often a good way to find out what genetic disorders, if any, tend to be more prevalent in your family.

Another simple method is to ask family members how other family members passed away when doing family history interviews.

Keep in mind though that this may not always be accurate, as was seen in the case of Carol Krause.

Krause was interviewed for a TV program called Ancestors and recalled how, when she was starting to do some family medical research, she came across the death certificate of an Auntie who had died of Stomach Cancer, or so her father had told her. In fact, the death certificate had the cause of death as Ovarian Cancer. There were several other family members that had passed away from Ovarian cancer in Krause's family and this new information helped convince her that there was a genetic predisposition towards Ovarian cancer (as well as a few other classes of cancer) in her family.

Tragically, it wasn't until after her sister, Susan, was diagnosed with Ovarian cancer, that Krause and her 2 other sisters went for checkups  for the specific cancers that were trending in their family.

In those checkups Krause and another sister Kathy were found to have had tumours that were not yet displaying symptoms.

While Susan tragically passed away 5 years later, Carol and Kathy were able to beat their cancers, helped largely by the fact that they had researched their family medical history.

Although the interview Krause did was part of an Ancestors show from 1997, some 6 years before the first complete draft of the human genome was released by the Human Genome Project team, it and the episode itself are still relevant today.

Of course, the idea of predisposition to disease is something that not everyone wants to be made aware of.

Some people just don't want to know and sometimes, for some diseases for which there is no current known treatment, knowing would make little to no difference.  The decision to know or not is clearly a personal one but, irrespective, the recording of your own medical history is an important step for future generations.

This idea was summed up nicely by Krause in her interview, when speaking about the role that her family played in helping her beat cancer:

"they sufferered...someone wrote it down…and a whole new generation is going to be saved because of it"

So, if you're going through the fun (and effort) of putting together a family history, why not try and add just a bit more information about how relatives have passed away?

Sure, in the not too distant future we'll all be able to look to genetic testing to give us a good picture of our predisposition to all genetic diseases, but until these tests become complete, cheap and widespread, you'll be doing yourself, your physician and your family a great service by documenting your family medical history

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