It’s common for health professionals to ask for family health histories among first-degree relatives, mainly parents. Understanding which illnesses and health conditions are present in our immediate families can flag risks for treatment or prevention. Dr. Francis Collins of the NIH asserts “Family health history turns out to be the strongest of all currently measurable risk factors for many common conditions, incorporating as it does information about both heredity and shared environment.” [The Language of Life, pg 14].*
A simple family health history is a great start, but if conditions affecting the family aren’t present among your immediate relatives, serious health risks might not be detected. Understanding conditions in second and even third-degree relatives might be necessary to truly assess risk.
Medical genealogy is a specialty focused on health conditions within the family. Here are three reasons to use genealogical research to better manage your health:
1. Recessive Disorders: Some conditions skip generations or affect only certain members of the family (e.g. color blindness only among males), so learning about health conditions for your 2nd and even 3rd degree relatives can show patterns that might not be obvious.
2. Unnatural Deaths: While unpleasant to think about, accidents and suicides can overshadow underlying risks that wouldn’t be revealed unless the health conditions of siblings, cousins, and other relatives are known.
3. Genes vs. environment: Knowing how your ancestors lived can give context to your current health risks. You inherited their genes, but did your ancestors live or work in polluted environments or experience trauma that elevated their risk for disease? Family history complements what is known about genetic inheritance.
If you’re not sure how to start building your own extended family health history or have hit a brick wall with your research, a professional genealogist can help. Contact me to learn more!
*Francis S. Collins, The Language of Life. Harper Perennial, 2011.