Creating Your Medical Family Tree Could Save Your Life

If you aren’t really sure about your family’s medical history, you may be setting yourself up for needless health problems.

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All chronic diseases – including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and cancer – are in some way influenced by heredity. Knowing that you carry the gene for a particular disease gives you a chance to prevent that disease or to deal with it at is earliest stage, when it’s more likely to be curable.

Gathering Information

The first step is making a brief history of ailments that run in your biological family. Making a medical family tree is fairly simple – and more importantly, it pays off in the long run.

Make a list of all your living biological relatives, as well as any friends, neighbors, coworkers, etc., who can provide information on those who have died. If your family is small, you can always interview relatives by phone. An alternative route is to consider having a family reunion and adding your tree-making project to the agenda.

Medical records and death certificates can be obtained from doctors and hospitals, as well as from bureaus of vital statistics and state and county archives. In addition, you can visit the National Genealogical Society’s web site at www.ngsgenealogy.org for more information.

Creating Your Tree

There is no absolute perfect way to go about creating your tree – you can set up your tree however you wish – but here is one way that makes it pretty easy to organize. Get a piece of sturdy paper, measuring at least 36 inches wide and 30 inches long. Fold it into fourths, horizontally. Each section will represent a single generation.

If you plan to cover more than four generations, get bigger paper and fold it into more sections, or attach additional sheets. Spread the paper flat on a table. Health information gathered from your questionnaires can be taped to the paper and should go in the following order (from the bottom up):

  • Your children and/or your siblings’ children
  • Yours, your siblings, your spouse’s and your spouse’s siblings
  • Your parents and their siblings, etc.

Position all remaining questionnaires so that they branch outward and upward in the traditional family tree pattern.

You can always purchase a ready-made chart from the National Genealogical Society or create your own using a computer program such as Family Tree Maker, which you can get a copy of at www.genealogy.com.

How to Use Your Tree

Once your chart is complete, take it to your doctor. Ask him/her to study it for patterns of disease through the generations – and to identify family members who may be at risk.

The good news is that discovering that you are likely to carry the gene for a particular disease doesn’t necessarily mean you will develop it. In many cases, a simple blood test will pinpoint your degree of risk.

Whether a medical predisposition leads to disease or is suppressed is determined by diet, exercise, smoking and other controllable factors. Many genetic disorders, such as diabetes and some cancers, are triggered in part by obesity. Other conditions may be prevented by following a particular diet. For example, if colon polyps run in your family, eating a calcium-rich diet may help suppress polyps and colon cancer.

Once your family medical tree has alerted you and your doctor to a possible predisposition, controlling your lifestyle and getting regular checkups will give you the best chance of beating the genetic odds.

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