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  • Roots and Branches: Genealogy and Genetics

    Miriam Weiner, C.G.

    Published Date : October - November 1988

    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 your life.

    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 them.

    By researching your family health tree, you can provide your family with a medical genealogy containing important information about the health history of your ancestors.

    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 strikes.

    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 [174] 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, and publications.

    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.

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