It’s Genealogy

by Terry Hogan

It’s called genealogy. It is, in the simplest terms, a study of the family’s history. However, as more and more people get involved with this research, and as medical science advances, some are beginning to stress the "gene" portion of genealogy.

We have known for a long time that immediate family medical history can be useful in predicting health risks for individuals. Why do you think that insurance companies and doctors ask about your family’s medical history as well as your own? As the study of human genetics advances and medical records and statistical treatments improve, we are finding that certain diseases seem to have a higher risk of occurring in certain families or in certain "races." These, in many cases, have been traced to certain genetic propensities. A well-established example of a genetic disease tracking a race, is sickle cell anemia, found in the black community. Women who have female blood relatives who have had breast cancer, have a higher statistical chance of developing the disease themselves, compared to women of similar age, etc. that lack a history of family involvement. Alcoholism has often been found to run at higher rates in families that already have other members with the same problem. Some suggest it is a food allergy, explaining this observation. Others suggest it is due to similar sociological conditions (poverty, etc.) and not related to genetics. Time will tell.

However, some folks, myself included, believe that the study of genealogy might provide some additional insight on health issues. Of course, I probably should note at this point that I am neither a physician nor a statistician, nor in any other way, an expert in the field. From a scientific point of view, my comments are meaningless. They are what would be called anecdotal: merely observations that have lacked stringent scientific analysis. And I agree with that. They are only observations, but again, they are not necessarily wrong, they just haven’t been rigorously investigated and thus may be either correct or incorrect. So, let’s just treat them as that- observations.

Medical histories are few and far between once you get back a little ways. If your ancestors had them, they were generally tossed after death. However, one golden opportunity exists for male relatives who served in the Civil War. Frequently, if they survived, you find them filing for a medical disability, attributing the ailment to military duty. If it was a result of a wound, the genetic implication is probably not there. However, sometimes you find claims filed for such things as loss of hearing, eyesight loss or deterioration, and other ailments. Some of these may have been due to other causes. Let me give a few examples.

There was a Hogan line in Logan County Kentucky in the early 1800s that I thought might tie into my line, based on the name and physical proximity. It did not. But by the time I confirmed this, I knew quite a bit about the family. In fact, I had traveled to Logan County and interviewed some living relatives. What I found, based on old records, is that one of three Hogan brothers had married a woman from Virginia. She came from a family whose male children had a high incidence of death. The children of this marriage died at an early edge. All bled to death from relatively minor incidents. One that I recall, died from loss of blood after having a tooth pulled. The genetic disease, introduced into the Hogan line by this marriage was hemophilia.

A less well-documented case is a family that seems to be prone to poor blood circulation in the legs. A son, his father, and the son’s great grandfather (skipped one generation, or there was no record of it) each had one or more sores on a leg that would not heal. It was not due to diabetes, at least for the more recent examples. The oldest case (great grandfather) was documented in civil war medical records associated with disability claims.

Another example was a different family that I research. That particular family seems to have a frequent occurrence of respiratory problems, ranging from asthma (a very common diagnosis among the American public) to chronic obstruction pulmonary disease or "COPD", a much more difficult ailment, and much less frequently encountered in the general public. Again, looking back in the Civil War records, I found a civil war veteran who filed for, and received, a military pension for what was described as a "weak heart". However, in reading the description of the symptoms, it matched, to my untrained eye, the symptoms described to me by a couple of people who have been diagnosed with CPO. Is it proof, beyond reproach? Absolutely not. It only raises the possibility of using genealogy as research tools to extend the "family medical history" back a little farther. Some of this effort may be of a generic sense. For example, maybe you will find out where the chronic poor eyesight came from, or the ears that look like cab door are open.

But remember, this is just me talking. I might be right. I might be wrong. But, I’m also not trying to sell you anything before midnight tonight for only $19.95 plus shipping and handling. My purpose, and I clearly have one, is simply to have you think about this aspect when you are doing your family history. Ask your living older relatives about any chronic ailments, causes of death. Don’t ask leading questions, like "Do we have a lot of relatives dying from cancer?" First, don’t do this because it biases the response. Second, because the answer is useless. Cancer is a generic disease. That adds nothing. But if you find that leukemia, or breast cancer, has what may be a higher than expected incidence, for example, you may be developing useful information.

Of course, it is up to you to decide how, if at all, you want to make use of the information. But I would not terrorize relatives with your mere speculation. If you think you may have found something, you may want to talk with your family physician first. Ask him not to take notes in your medical file and pose your questions. Do it when you are in for some other reason- a routine physical for example.

But when you are doing your family’s history and you are already going beyond the names, dates, and places, why not add a little medical information? Pay attention to those civil war pension records. Pay attention to those old photos.

If you don’t know what you are looking for, it is pretty hard to know when you found it.

Take care, good health, and good hunting.