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Exploring Your Family History
How and Why

by David Spero, RN

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.

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