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Exploring Your Family History
How and Why

by David Spero, RN

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 Genealogy.com, “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.”

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