Whatever killed your grandparents might end up killing you.
But discovering your medical genealogy, also known as family medical history, might help you change your fate. There’s a program this weekend at the Augusta-Richmond County Library to get you started.
It helped 36-year-old Catherine Pate. When she discovered that the depression she’s battled since youth runs in her family, she says, the validation freed her to get treatment.
“It took a lot of pressure off me, to know it wasn’t my fault. It freed me up to know I’m in a long line of sufferers, that it’s not something I’m making up. This is just what I was dealt,” said Pate.
The pattern of mental illness in Pate’s family was uncovered while tracing her medical genealogy – a branch of ancestor research focused on health conditions and illnesses. Interest in the field is mushrooming as the importance of genetics is better understood.
Genetic biases toward everything from green eyes to long lives emerge. Vivid details about ancestors’ health problems and physical characteristics yield fleshed-out characters popping off the page in ways mere names and dates never could.
“It was just names. That’s all. You had their name, their birth date, maybe their marriage date and their death date,” says Dottie Demarest, a reference librarian specializing in genealogy and local history at the Augusta-Richmond County Library.
“But now, we can know so much more and, therefore, be more connected.”
Demarest will help present a free seminar on medical genealogy Saturday on the third floor of the library’s main branch. “Does it Run in the Family?” will begin at 2 p.m. and is designed for beginners and experts. Kathy Davies, the chairwoman of research and education services at Georgia Regents University’s Robert B. Greenblatt M.D. Library, will also lead the program.
Demarest said she finds people typically become interested in ancestry research after their parents die, “when there’s no one for them to ask their questions to anymore.”
Burgeoning interest in the role genetics play in health, however, has younger folks getting involved. No matter their age, though, Demarest says it takes “a bit of a sleuth” to pursue genealogy of any type.
“I really like a mystery,” she says. “I enjoy digging up all the little tidbits, the things people struggled with, what they overcame. It makes them come alive.”
While there are pricey software programs for tracing family roots, Demarest works in the library’s Georgia Heritage Room providing free use of such materials and helping folks research public records. She and Davies also help decipher archaic medical terms that make little sense today.
One need not search too far back to discover relatives suffering and dying from such maladies as joint evil, chilblain, dropsy, consumption, apoplexy and heart sickness.
“People have no idea what (these terms) mean,” Demarest says. “But when they find out what they are, they might be able to tie them to somebody in the family today.”
The benefits of charting your family’s health history are clear, with nearly one-third of all known diseases having genetic links. Heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, alcoholism, mental illness, obesity and high blood pressure head the lengthy list. Cancer, hearing loss and vision problems also are sometimes hereditary.
Such information helps medical professionals assess your risks for certain conditions, determine whether you should get a specific genetic test and decide what lifestyle changes may be needed to avoid or delay problems. It also may help determine your risk of passing conditions on to your children.
Because family medical histories are useful to those trying to interpret patterns of health and illness in their own lives, the U.S. surgeon general recently launched an initiative encouraging every person to complete one.
To get started, experts say, begin with that you know. Record health-related information about yourself and then go back one generation at a time.
Include information about births, including dates and defects; deaths, with dates and causes; ethnic background, as some diseases are particular to ethnic groups; allergies, whether environmental or drug-related; emotional or behavioral problems, such as depression or heavy drinking; and chronic health problems, such as asthma or high blood pressure.
Conversations with family members provide the best information, and Demarest says family reunions provide the ideal setting. Make sure to respect your relatives’ privacy. They may be hesitant or embarrassed to share personal information.
Much information also may be garnered from death records and obituaries, pension documents, Social Security applications, family Bibles or diaries, old correspondence and military records, World War I and World War II draft records, immigration records and old photographs.
“The biggest clues come from those in the family,” Demarest says. “But in the past folks were hesitant to talk. Each generation whitewashes like crazy, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.”