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Good morning health community! Today I take a day off from blogging and am happy to present you a guest post by the amazing Virginia Cunningham, who contacted me recently to offer writing something individually designed for Health Ninja. Since my post on how genetics might affect they way we eat was attracting wide interest, I thought it would be a perfect fit when Virginia proposed to write about the importance of knowing your family roots regarding medical issues. Hope you enjoy this little excursion and I’ll be back tomorrow for our weekly WIAW party.

As our collective access to history, genealogy and other knowledge from the past increases, many of us are pursuing our family backgrounds like never before. Knowing where we came from can increase our sense of a greater story and help put our lives into perspective.

As our ability to extend or biographical knowledge increases, so does the importance of that knowledge. In particular, uncovering patterns in our genetics and medical legacy goes beyond helping us understand our lives; it may actually help us make them longer.

family1Image Courtesy of Tedejahuella/Wikimedia Commons

The Medical Benefits of Knowing Your Family Tree

By looking more into how your ancestors once lived, you can get a better sense of your genetic predisposition. In particular, there are a number of genetically-linked diseases that can be treated more effectively if detected in the early stages. While poor health in the family might just appear to be random stretches of bad luck when not examined closely, looking at the long view of the history of your bloodline may clue you into your likelihood of developing physical and mental disorders, such as:

  • Asthma
  • High blood pressure, heart disease, and cancer
  • Schizophrenia
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity

If you’ve uncovered a recurrence of any of these afflictions within your family tree, let your doctor know immediately. While you are not guaranteed to fall prey to your family’s predispositions, it’s best to be vigilant, just in case. With early detection and preventative actions, you can fend off diseases through a number of avenues, ranging from cautious lifestyle modifications to early warning medication and surgery.

In some cases, being on the lookout for genetic disorders may not necessarily prevent them, but can make things easier by providing a framework of understanding in the early stages—even in infancy or beforehand. For instance, cystic fibrosis, Down syndrome and sickle cell anemia are all directly linked to hereditary factors, therefore, prospective parents equipped with a robust family history might want to seek genetic counseling before they decide to conceive.

How to Construct Your Family Medical History

In researching the full story of your family health, you’ll want to leave no stone unturned.  Obtain formal records wherever possible, but, understandably, oral recollections may be the best you can get. At any rate, trace your family tree on both maternal and paternal sides, collecting the stories of cousins, nieces, nephews and other extended family members. If nothing else, this can be a chance of renewing connections with more distant relatives.

family2Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

While amassing the chronicle of your family’s health, you should record any diseases that afflict your bloodline; however, because some symptoms and diseases can go undetected, try to record even seemingly innocent circumstances of fatality. For example, if your aunt died at an auspiciously young age due to seemingly unknown causes, probe for any casual information—environmental factors, lifestyle choices—that were observed at the time.   When assessed by a skilled diagnostician in light of a broader family history, tiny details may hint at a greater story.

Of course, while putting together this picture of your family, your hope should be to find you have little to worry about.  Although there is nothing you can really do to change the genetic tendencies you’ve been given, it’s a wise idea to learn about the afflictions you may have to face at some point—and get a better sense of who you are at the same time.

Virginia Cunningham is a freelance writer in Southern California who specializes in health and alternative medicine. To avoid possible genetic health issues for herself and her children, she underwent a gene test to determine how to modify her current lifestyle.