How Your Past Can Affect the Health of Your Future (and maybe help save family member’s life!)

Note: Most of this article is due to Judith L. Weinberger and Linda Clark’s willingness to share their experience with the Treasure Map’s on-line family.

Judith wrote: “This letter is to relate a recent experience that at first glance has NOTHING to do with genealogy, but at second glance has EVERYTHING to do with family history…

Last year I had a heart attack (yes, thank you, I am doing very well now). No one expected I would ever have this type of medical problem. Every doctor I spoke with (and there were a lot) asked if heart problems ran in the family. I knew they did, but was unsure of the extent.

During my recovery at home, I pulled out all death certificates, obituaries, and family oral history in my files and created a chart.

Collateral family was included where I thought it might be relevant. My grandfather died of cancer, but his brother, sister, and first cousin ALL died of heart attacks! As you can see from the enclosed, the heart problem LEAPS off of the page.”

Note from Robert: Enclosed was part of her pedigree chart with her ancestor’s heart problems highlighted in pink. Not only did it leap off of the page - it was VERY sobering. If you try this for yourself you will understand completely.

“When I took the chart to my cardiologist, he was amazed that I had this information and wanted to know how reliable my sources were. He then ordered blood tests designed to find genetic markers. When these tests were in, he suggested I share copies of the findings and the chart with my immediate family. My 35-year-old daughter took everything to her doctor and found she has the same genetic markers for heart disease. Besides my daughter, this information went to my mother, brother, niece, and nephew.


My daughter can start changing her life style now and will pay closer attention to the occasional chest pains we all seem to experience.I may have saved her life with my genealogy hobby! As I am sure you know, there are many hereditary health problems.Making this type of chart will be beneficial to many people. Genealogy researchers already have the information in their files!” (Judith Lucinda (Woods) Weinberger)

Linda Clark wrote: “I have also found a genetic disease that my Dad had. Through further research I find that most of his ancestors had this gene and when they married a person that also carried the gene, the gene mutated and the offspring acquired this disease. Both males and females carry the gene. This disease shows up in people of European, English, Irish, Scottish, British Isles decent. I have been able to alert cousins, aunts and uncles and brothers and sisters of this disease. It is called Hemachromatosis (also called Iron Overload disease).
With so many people on this earth that had originated from these places it is worthwhile for them to be tested.

My Dad died of complications of this and usually by the time you are diagnosed the damage has been done. My Dad got this because his parents both were carriers also his parents did not have the disease. Because both his parents were carriers my Dad got the disease as well as his siblings. His siblings did not know that they had it until I encouraged them to be tested. All of my fathers offspring are carriers. It is a fascinating subject.” (Linda Clark)

Five Steps to Charting Your Family’s Health History

1. Start now - with or without a genealogy computer program. If you have a computer program that will print your pedigree charts, print one out. If you are new to family history, make a copy of a “paper” pedigree that you may have been working on (because you will be writing all over it) - or, if you have neither of these, start writing on a blank sheet of paper.

2. Check any records that you have on hand (as Judith mentioned: death certificates, obituaries, and family oral histories, etc.) for specific diseases and health problems. If you don’t have many of these types of records - make it a personal goal to dedicate some of your research time to finding more of them.

3. Call any family members who might be able to tell you more information about “who has/had what.” You may be surprised at how little you knew about your family’s health history. Of course, you will have to verify a lot of that information about your departed ancestors. But, something is better than nothing - right?

4. Write everything you can down on your “working copy” of your pedigree chart. You’ll have to write all over it to get this to work so don’t worry about keeping everything neat.

After you do this, go back and highlight the health problems that you have written on the pedigree chart in different colors. For example: heart, stroke, and blood pressure in one color. Diabetes, high and low blood sugar in another color, etc.

5. Check for patterns. This is where it will really hit home. You may see a health problem that points right at you! It will be very obvious as you look at your pedigree chart in this perspective. There may be a common problem that is chained together through the generations of your ancestors that links directly to you.

In fact, in the example that Judith sent me - the heart problems highlighted from both sides of her family, going back into the early 1800’s, was so overwhelming, that you could almost set your watch (so to speak) by it. Try this for yourself and then share the information with other family members. It WILL be a real eye opener - and it may help save a loved one’s life.

I encourage you to not only look at your family tree from a genealogy perspective, but to also into your family’s health history and see what happens.

More Family Health History Resources:

Download the Family Health History Toolkit - Use the Family Health History Toolkit to help you talk about your family health history, write down what you learn, and then share it with your doctor and family members. A custom toolkit for seniors is also available.

Know your Family Health History - It’s worth taking the time to learn more about your relatives’ health. As former US Surgeon General Richard H. Carmona said: “The bottom line is that knowing your family history can save your life.”