Knowing your family health history could save your life. Researchers are now
studying family trees to discover more about genetic diseases.
The value of family medical histories is evident for anyone who has visited a
physician or been confined in a hospital. The questions asked immediately after
“what’s bothering you?” are if your parents are alive or deceased; if the
latter, what was the cause of death, followed by questions about the health of
brothers and sisters. The cause of death or illness of grandparents is often
asked as well.
This is not a simple exercise in medical inquisitiveness. Your responses
become a permanent part of your medical history. Genetics plays a vital role in
If members of your family have had such common problems as heart disease,
strokes, high blood pressure, cancer, glaucoma, or diabetes, it may be possible
for you to take steps to postpone getting these ailments or perhaps preventing
By researching your family health tree, you can provide your family with a
medical genealogy containing important information about the health history of
This data can be used in many ways. For example, knowing that a certain
illness “runs in the family" can guide you to good preventive health care.
Genetic diseases developed as a result of historical and geographical
circumstances. When a community has been isolated over a period of time and
there is consanguinity -- a pattern of marriage among close relatives, such as
first cousins or uncle and niece - it is not unusual for genetic conditions and
diseases to develop. In general, all people carry eight to ten genes for
possible diseases, but they are unaware of it unless a particular disease
Many genetic disorders are found to a greater extent among members of certain
ethnic groups than in the general population. Fortunately, most genetic diseases
are extremely rare. However, there are a few that  occur in high enough
frequency to be of concern, and there are inexpensive and effective tests to
determine whether you are a carrier.
As part of its continuing effort to educate the public, the National
Foundation for Jewish Genetic Diseases, Inc., distributes an informative
pamphlet describing seven diseases affecting Ashkenazi Jews. The foundation
raises funds to disseminate information and sponsor medical research, symposia,
For a free copy of the pamphlet and for information on the activities of the
NFJGD, write to 250 Park Avenue #1000, New York, NY 10017.
Tay-Sachs disease is the most well known Jewish genetic disease, afflicting
about one in every 2,500 Ashkenazi Jewish babies. This disease is characterized
by the onset of severe mental and developmental retardation during the early
stages of development of a baby or child. It will kill its victim before his or
her fifth birthday. At present, no treatment is available for Tay-Sachs disease,
but there is a simple blood test to determine if you are a carrier. Emphasis has
been placed on public education, carrier screening and prenatal diagnosis for
the prevention of this devastating disease.
Families affected by the Tay-Sachs disease may wish to contact the Tay-Sachs
Prevention Program, Thomas Jefferson University, Philadelphia, PA 19107,
215-928-8320, or the National Tay-Sachs and Allied Diseases Association, 385
Elliott Street, Newton, MA 02164, 617-964-5508.
Medical research will ultimately lead to a decline in Jewish genetic diseases
among children. Other factors leading to a reduction of these diseases include
the dramatic decrease in consanguinity, even among Israel’s Oriental and
Sephardic Jews, the increase in intermarriage of Jews of different backgrounds,
genetic counseling, and the shrinking size of Jewish families.
Genealogists accumulate data about family members from U.S. censuses. Census
records from 1850 to 1910 have columns of information pertaining to the physical
or mental condition of individuals such as deaf, dumb, blind, insane, or
idiotic. The 1880 census also has a column indicating any sickness or disability
and whether the person was maimed, crippled, bedridden, or disabled.
In compiling a medical family tree chart, the 1860-1885 mortality schedules
can be valuable. These schedules list those who died during the 12 months prior
to the census (June 1 through May 31 of 1849, 1859, 1869, 1879, and 1885).
Locating these records can be worth the effort. [Editor’s Note: The NEHGS
Library now owns the AIS published indexes to many of these mortality
schedules.] They provide name, age, place of birth, profession, occupation or
trade, cause of death, and length of illness.
Both census and mortality schedules can be found at the National Archives in
Washington, D.C., or in its regional branches throughout the country.
The March of Dimes provides a family health tree chart. It has places to
indicate date of birth, occupation, significant medical conditions or disorders,
health-related habits such as smoking and drinking, cause and age of death of
family members. To obtain a free Family Health Tree chart, Genetic Counseling
booklet, and Family Medical Record/Health History, contact your local chapter of
the March of Dimes.
Recent advances in medical science have made it clear that good health can be
an important part of the legacies we leave our descendants. Armed with knowledge
of our family’s medical history, we may be able to prevent or minimize illnesses
that afflicted our ancestors.
Compiling a medical genealogy is a good project for grandparents whose
personal knowledge of the family’s health history usually spans five generations
-- reaching back to their own grandparents and extending to their grandchildren.
The benefits of tracing your family health tree can extend far beyond the
medical knowledge gained. It is a good family project. The hours spent looking
through old records and jogging family memories can help build a strong feeling
of family satisfaction and pride. Most importantly, it will give your
descendants something precious that may make a great difference in their lives.
It is a legacy money cannot buy.
Miriam Weiner, C.G., specializes in Eastern European origins and Jewish
genealogy. For a Beginner’s Guide to genealogical research, including charts,
list of archives and libraries, maps, family group sheets, and bibliography,
send $10.00 and SASE to 136 Sandpiper Key, Secaucus, NJ 07094.