Your Family History

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If you read Diabetes Self-Management magazine, I have an article in there this month on learning your family history. It turns out that finding out our family’s health history can help us avoid health problems of our own or deal with them better.

As an example, I reported on a woman who started coughing at age 33, and she kept coughing on and off for months. She might never have figured out what was wrong without talking to her 84-year-old grandfather as part of a family history project.

“Your grandmother had asthma,” he told her. “I think it started when she was about your age.”

Her parents hadn’t known about this history. Since asthma usually starts much younger, her doctor didn’t suspect it either. But with the information from her granddad, she went to the doctor, got tested, and got treated for asthma.

Author Carol Daus says in her book Past Imperfect, “Tracing your family medical history can save your life.” Indeed, most diseases, including diabetes, depression, Alzheimer disease, and heart disease, to name a few, are influenced by genes. Knowing your history may allow you to prevent illness, or at least prepare for it.

More Than Health
Health isn’t the only reason to learn your story. Family and cultural history can open wonderful new windows on your life. According to Marcia Yannizze Melnyk, author of Family History 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Finding Your Ancestors, “People want to know about those who went before us. Perhaps it is our need to understand ourselves and how we fit into the broader scope of the world. Maybe we need to understand something about ourselves — who we look like, our personalities and habits.”

Modern society leaves many of us wondering who we are, especially in the United States. People used to live where their ancestors had lived, so stories were passed down from one generation to the next, with friends and neighbors filling in the details that relatives might have forgotten. But in the modern world, people move around the country and the globe, sometimes every few years. Most people have never seen their grandparents’ place of birth. This disconnect from the past can leave people feeling adrift and uncertain.

Learning About Your History
If you want to learn about your history, what do you do? First get some forms that are available on the Internet at sites like this one. A lot of forms, software, and information are available from the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) at

After getting some forms to keep track of the information you will be collecting, start by writing in information about yourself and as much as you can recall about relatives. According to the Web site, “Your personal memories and the stories you’ve heard from others have created a collection of genealogical information. The information that you already have probably includes the names, birth dates and birthplaces of your close relatives, along with other facts you know. Start by recording the facts that you already know.”

In addition to what you can remember, you may also have historical records available in your home or in the homes of relatives — scrapbooks, photo albums, family Bibles, files, and miscellaneous papers. Attics, basements, closets, and old trunks may contain documents that can help you in your search.

Once you’ve gotten what you can from memories and from documents, recommends that you “ask your living relatives for any information they may have. This is especially important for the older members of the family, as they often have information about people who are long gone.”

Think of yourself as a journalist, and take the process of interviewing relatives seriously. You might prepare questions in advance and give your relatives a list ahead of time. That will get them thinking about it, and they will remember more.

You might want to ask your relative’s permission to record or even videotape the interview. You should be prepared for some emotional responses as you tap into the family memory bank. Not all memories are good ones. Most families have had their share of disappointments and personal tragedies. And even happy memories can have a sad edge if the people they involved have become ill, died, or otherwise experienced changed circumstances. Give yourself time to process the new information and any emotions it may bring.

How About You?
Have you researched family history? What have been your experiences? Did you learn anything valuable? Many find that genealogy research helps bring families closer together. Have you noticed anything like that? I would be really interested in people’s experience with family history.

And notice what you’re missing if you don’t have a subscription to the paper version of DSM! There are lots of valuable articles in there every time, and not all of them make it on to the Web site. If you’re not receiving it, consider signing up!

End Note: My first book, The Art of Getting Well: Maximizing Health When You Have a Chronic Illness, is back in print! (The publisher finally realized there was actual demand!) Check it out at my Web site,

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