Last night I heard Dr. Siddhartha Mukherjee speak about his new book The Gene, a “quest to decipher the master-code of instructions that makes and defines humans;…and determines the future of our children.” Dr. Mukherjee is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, a ground-breaking book. Coincidentally, I also heard him speak last week at the Fast Company Innovation Festival. He is stunningly smart and evocative and if you ever get a chance to be in his presence, do.
That’s a long-winded way of saying he’s the bomb. I get to do the coolest things in my role at Balance Integration!
Among the many things that got my wheels turning was how many health risks are predetermined by family history.
Do you have an understanding of your Genealogy?
According to the National Library of Medicine, “Families have many factors in common, including their genes, environment, and lifestyle. Together, these factors can give clues to medical conditions that may run in a family. By noticing patterns of disorders among relatives, healthcare professionals can determine whether an individual, other family members, or future generations may be at an increased risk of developing a particular condition.”
They go on to define a “complete record includes information from three generations of relatives, including children, brothers and sisters, parents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, grandparents, and cousins.”
It does seem like a “duh” to explore the health issues those before you suffered in order to avoid the same. For example, my family has a long history of both heart disease and thyroid dysfunction. So far I’ve been able to avoid both and if all goes as planned I will never have either. It takes work and fortitude, and I am committed!
The first hurdle is to want to know. Like the number on the scale, it’s just data, and data gives you power. In addition, just because someone in your lineage had a particular disease doesn’t automatically mean you will too. Why not get educated so you can take precautions?
Now knowing there is a history of arthritis can be a lot different than deciding to test for the brca (a gene mutation that can lead to an increased risk of cancer, particularly breast or ovarian). Famously, given the death of her mother by ovarian cancer and after discovering she had the brca gene, Angelina Jolie had a preventative mastectomy and her ovaries removed. That is dramatic indeed, but from her perspective the right choice. Another person instead may decide to have frequent screenings and take other preventative measures.
The point is, with that knowledge you can impact your own fate, and perhaps stop the cycle.
Last night the Dr. talked about the impetus for his second book: the discovery that not only his relative had schizophrenia, but generations before him did too, hence indicating that he and his children more predisposed to the illness. With that information comes actionable options and be awareness.
So what are some steps to learn your family history?
- Ask! With Thanksgiving coming up, use the opportunity around the dinner table to create a family tree complete with health history. You may learn some interesting things about Aunt Silvia or Grandpa Joe.
- If any family members deceased, research their obituaries and death certificates for medication information.
- The Internet is a fabulous resource. You can find a list of online resources for genealogy here.
- Take a trip. My Uncle David visited the Italian town his father grew up, and met a whole host of people who knew or were related to the family. Or go to the National Archives in Washington DC where you can find the manifest if your ancestors came to America on a boat.
- Share what you learned with your medical care team so they can paint a full picture of your health.
Through these tactics you will create a guide for your descendants that may ensure their optimal health. What a gift!
And if uncovering your health history isn’t enough motivation, think about the fun stories you’ll gain about relatives’ journeys from immigration, to career, to how they met their partners, to whether someone famous in your lineage.
I happen to love the story about my great grandfather being a bootlegger, among other things, to keep the family afloat.
If the discovery unexpected (like when Ben Affleck learned his ancestor a slave owner on the PBS series "Finding Your Roots"), it offers valuable teaching moments for your children, nieces and nephews, like discussed in this CNN article.
So happy hunting and please share some of your amazing discoveries. Most importantly, take action to optimize your and your children’s health.
Marjorie, Chief MOJO Maker™