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A Special Family Tree

A Special Family Tree

Genealogy research is a popular activity among seniors.  There are a number of websites devoted to genealogy, vacations organized around the concept, and entire companies founded upon it.  Genealogy is the study of one’s ancestry and descendants.  Closely related to genealogy is the study of family history – the stories behind the names of those ancestors and descendants.  Those stories can contain important information that may affect one’s health.  Is someone in your family working on putting together a family tree?  If so, consider adding some branches about family health during the process.

A family health history is important because it can reveal if you, your children, or your grandchildren may be at risk for certain diseases or health conditions, such as heart disease.  While some diseases are clearly inherited, others result from a combination of family genes, lifestyle, and environment.  When an individual is aware of an increased risk for a certain disease, steps can be taken to help prevent or delay the onset of that particular disease (for example, weight management and diabetes).  Knowledge of disease risk and symptoms can also lead to earlier diagnosis and more successful treatment if the disease should occur.

Some examples of genetic diseases include cystic fibrosis and Down’s syndrome.  These diseases are caused by changes in the genetic makeup of some of the body’s cells.  These abnormal cells can be inherited from one or both parents even if the parents don’t have the disease themselves.  A family health history can alert a physician to the need for specific genetic testing, especially for couples who are planning to have children or adults who have family members who develop symptoms from a genetic disease later in life (such as Huntington’s disease).  Knowledge of a family health history and the implications that can result may lead individuals to make different lifestyle decisions than they would otherwise. Genetic counselors are trained professionals who can help individuals and families plan for and absorb the impact of the possibility or presence of a genetic disease.

Some types of disease having a genetic component may also have environmental or lifestyle factors that strongly influence whether or not the disease will develop.  An individual predisposed to developing heart disease will increase his or her risk if tobacco use is a routine habit.  Diet, weight, alcohol use, occupation, physical activity, and where you live can all have a positive or negative influence on disease risk.  Knowledge of controllable risk factors and uncontrollable family history is especially important for conditions in which the symptoms may be hidden.  You don’t want to wait until you have a stroke to find out about your high blood pressure.  Paying attention to the health of your ancestors may help you prevent a catastrophic illness provided that you act on that knowledge.

The benefits of a health history are obvious, but where does one start?  The most valuable information will come from your immediate family; parents, siblings, and children.  Other close relatives such as aunts and uncles, grandparents, and cousins also can provide important insights.  Be sure to explain to family members your reason for asking about personal health before you fire a list of questions at them, and keep in mind each person’s right to privacy.   Grandma may relish the opportunity to share her list of maladies in front of an audience at a holiday dinner, but Aunt Mary may prefer a private telephone conversation.  Questions such as the presence of chronic conditions and age of onset, ethnic heritage, lifestyle, cause of death and age of deceased relatives, and presence of difficult pregnancies or birth defects will provide helpful information.  Family members who are adopted may only have limited information available to them, but by starting a new family health history, they can help future generations.

The U.S. Surgeon General has put together a tool to organize a family health history.  This tool and additional information about family health histories and senior health issues can be found at  While some facts may be unpleasant or may need to remain private, even a few details can have a powerful effect on the future.  Give your family members the opportunity to live longer and healthier lives by sharing your knowledge of the branches of your ancestors’ (and your own) health experiences with this special family tree.

Karen Kaslow, RN
Elder Care Coordinator
Keystone Elder Law