Exploring Your Family History

How and Why

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When Joan was 33, she started coughing, 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.”

Neither Joan nor her parents had known about her grandmother’s history. And her doctor hadn’t suspected asthma, which usually starts in childhood, because of Joan’s age. But armed with the new information about her family’s medical history, she got tested for asthma and started on treatment for the condition the next week.

As Joan’s case demonstrates, and as author Carol Daus says in her book Past Imperfect, “Tracing your family medical history can save your life.” Indeed, many diseases are influenced by genes, and knowing your own genetic history can enable you to take preventive measures against conditions to which you are predisposed. If early heart disease runs in your family, for example, you might want to talk to your doctor about ways of screening for heart disease, as well as make a concerted effort to exercise, reduce stress, and eat a healthful diet. Knowing about a family history of other conditions that have a strong genetic component, such as Type 2 diabetes, certain forms of breast cancer, Alzheimer disease, and a wide variety of birth defects, can also enable you to take protective steps – either to lower your risk or to raise the chances of being diagnosed early, when a condition may be more treatable.

Delving into the stories of your immediate family’s, and even of your more distant ancestors’, history may also give you a new perspective on the health challenges you face. For example, the Inuit, aboriginal people in Canada, are genetically predisposed to be efficient at storing the energy from food, which aids in surviving the harsh climates of their native areas. For an Inuit, knowing that the tendency to store energy as fat served as a survival mechanism might help put a lifelong struggle with overweight in a new light. Similarly, knowing that both a great-grandmother and a grandfather had diabetes might help a person feel less guilt or self-blame for having developed the condition.

Another example of how knowledge of ancestral history can improve health involves the Pima Indians of Arizona, who have one of the highest rates of Type 2 diabetes in the world. An article in the January 1998 volume of the journal Diabetes Medicine describes a study done among Pima without diabetes to determine whether physical activity and nutrition interventions would help reduce their risk of developing the condition. The researchers assigned a portion of the study participants to a health intervention group known as Pima Action and a portion of the participants to a control group (the group not receiving the treatment being evaluated) known as Pima Pride. Those in the Pima Action group participated in structured physical activity and received nutrition guidance, while those in the Pima Pride group were involved in activities focusing on Pima history and culture. After 12 months, the researchers found that those in the Pima Pride group had an increase in levels of physical activity and had more improved markers of health (such as weight and blood pressure levels) compared to those in the Pima Action group. While it’s impossible to say for sure, it seems likely that these positive changes were the result of an increase in self-esteem gained by learning about Pima history.

The documentary film called The Gift of Diabetes traces the journey of an Ojibway (Native American) man with diabetes named Brion Whitford as he discovers the healing power of learning about his ancestral history. In this film, produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Whitford learns about the effects of colonization on his ancestors and begins to take an active interest in the traditional healing practices of the Ojibway. These experiences help him progress on the path toward a healthier life.

In exploring their ancestors’ history, some people only want to know about their own direct ancestors. But others want to know about their entire tribal, ethnic, or regional group. Even an exploration that is this broad can still be helpful from a medical standpoint, since some genetic characteristics and illnesses affect particular large populations, such as Tay-Sachs disease among Ashkenazi Jewish people (those of Eastern European descent) and sickle- cell anemia among people of African descent.

Far more than health

All of which is to say that it’s good to know as much as you can about your family’s and even your broader ancestral group’s history for purposes of your health. But learning this information can benefit you in far more ways that just preventing disease: It 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.

In addition, Yannizze Melnyk says, “Some people are just curious. An interest in history also plays into it, as world events shaped generations of lives here and abroad. Learning about history in the context of your family and knowing of the ancestors who took part in these events makes the entire subject come to life.”

History and genealogy

Family history is often called genealogy, but these terms actually describe two somewhat different things. Genealogy refers to the identification of direct ancestors: people who are genetically related to you and possibly their unrelated spouses, as well. It involves finding and recording ancestors’ names, dates and places of birth and death, and possibly cause of death and any medical conditions they may have had. The end product is a “family tree,” with names and dates spreading out as you move back through the generations.

Family history has a larger scope. It involves not just identifying ancestors and when they lived but also finding out about where and when people moved, what work they did, and how major events of their time such as wars or floods affected them. It might also include personal stories about family members. All of this information can be collected in a family notebook or on a personal Web site.

For medical purposes, focusing on your genealogy may be enough. The more you can find out about the health and, if applicable, the cause of death of your parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents, the more you will know about your own potential health problems. For most medical conditions, if only one person in your family had it, that doesn’t indicate a very strong risk for your developing the same condition. But if several people in the family had the same condition, and particularly if they developed a condition such as cancer or heart disease at a young age, that would indicate a stronger genetic risk. Speaking with your physician about any family connections you uncover to a specific medical condition can be a good first step to determining your level of risk and finding out how to stay healthy.

Start with yourself

When looking into your family’s background, think about whether you want to create a family history or the more basic genealogy. This will tell you what sort of information to look for. After getting some forms to keep track of the information you will be collecting (see “Online Resources” for more information), 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. To start growing your family tree, all you need to do is record 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.”

Doing family interviews

Interviewing family members is more a process than a one-time event. As Daus advises, “It’s a good idea to give the person time to prepare. Ask him a week in advance to start gathering photos, letters, documents, or other items that will help him share memories with you.”

Presenting your relative with a list of questions you plan to ask ahead of time can also be helpful. The following questions can help get you started:

• What were the dates (exact or approximate) of relatives’ births and deaths? How old were they when they died?

• What was the cause of death of each person? What, if any, major health problems did they have? • What were their physical characteristics, such as weight, height, race, and ethnicity?

• Is there any history of mental illness in the family?
You may come up with follow-up questions after the interview, or your family member may remember more things he wants to share with you once the memories get flowing. Invite him to call you if he wants to talk more.

Think of yourself as a journalist, and take this process seriously. 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 or died. Give yourself time to process the new information and any emotions it may bring.


Most family stories have some truth to them, but some information may become twisted in memory or even outright forgotten. Fortunately, a lot of information can be verified or recalled through official records.
You can find birth and death certificates for many relatives in the places where they were born and died, respectively. (Some states keep these certificates at the state or county level, while others may keep them at the town or municipal level. “Where to Write for Vital Records,” a Web site run by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and located at, can be a helpful resource for determining where to look.) Birth certificates typically include the names of both parents (which may help you further your research), while death certificates should list the cause of death and the date of birth. Birth and death certificates from some localities may be available online. (See “Online Resources” for more information.)

Other forms of documentation may also be valuable. School, employment, and military records, for instance, can tell you a lot, as can census records and immigration lists. These types of records can be found in national or state archives, libraries, and historical societies. The Family History Library and associated Family History Centers maintained by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are also a potentially valuable source of information.

Tracking down all of this information might seem overwhelming, but as family history has become one of the leading hobbies in the world, books, magazines, and Web sites have cropped up for beginners, experts, and everyone in between. (Click here for a list of books on family history and genealogy.) No matter how far you take your research, learning more about your family’s story can help you learn more about you, and that’s always a good thing. Good hunting!

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