Shake That Family Tree

Make sure you talk to your ancestors about their health, it could save your life one day.

For Your Health

Shake That Family Tree

The argument for knowing all about your ancestors’ health

-Susan Crandell

Talking to a doctorIt’s time to have the big talk with Mom. No, not the sex talk. The one where you discuss how your relatives died. Finding out could save your life one day.

With all the breakthroughs in genetic research, with markers revealed for diseases ranging from breast cancer to Huntington’s, we may feel it’s not necessary anymore to know the details of the health of our ancestors. At a time when there’s a fad for throwing DNA parties where everybody spits into test tubes and sends their saliva away for a personal DNA mapping, has the traditional medical “family history” gone the way of the horse and buggy?

Not a chance, say medical experts who point out that there’s still value in doing things the old-fashioned way. Mapping your family’s health history can reveal possible risk factors for common conditions like Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Knowing that a health problem runs in your family can lead you to improve your diet, start exercising, or make other lifestyle changes that may insure that the problem that stalked your forebears never stalks you.

So sit down with your oldest relatives – it’s best to get a history that goes back three generations or more – and start asking the tough questions. Be empathetic with people who grew up in a time when health issues were intensely personal, when cancer was the disease that dared not speak its name. Emphasize the reason you want to know: to promote the continued health of you and your children. Don’t just ask about cause of death; inquire about chronic illnesses and any other conditions, such as benign colon polyps or even allergies, your ancestors may have suffered. Find out if there’s a history of miscarriages or other pregnancy complications. Pinpoint the age at which these things occurred, as best you can.

Once you’ve gathered the info, you can create a record on, using a format developed by the Surgeon General and his staff. It only takes 20 minutes to complete. After you’ve done that, you can share your family tree with your relatives, who can use your information as a jumping off point to construct their own family tree; there’s a “re-indexing” feature that redraws the tree with your relative at the center instead of you. You can download the finished form to your own computer and print it out to take to your doctor. The write-up is “EHR-ready,” which means it can be embedded in electronic health records, ready to be downloaded by a medical team in an emergency. If you have trouble filling out the form, there’s a helpline: 888-478-4423 (or 301-451-4384), or e-mail

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0 thoughts on “Shake That Family Tree

  1. Yes! I did this last year with my Mom to kind of figure out if there was anything I should be watching out for warning signs of. It’s definitely very helpful and if God forbid you’re ever rushed to the ER for some unknown thing and they ask “Is there a history of ___ in your family?” you’ll be able to answer correctly.

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