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Family Health History

WebMD Feature

May 15, 2000 -- If you are thinking about compiling a family health history, the Royal North Shore Hospital's Genetics Education Program in Sydney, Australia, gives details on constructing family health tree diagrams and depicts the universally understood health tree symbols to use in the diagrams.

The hospital's online guide lists these conditions of interest, among others, in compiling a family health history:

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  • Alcoholism/drug dependency
  • Birth defects: abnormalities present at birth such as heart defects, cleft lip or palate, spina bifida
  • Cancers: especially bowel, breast, colon, lung, melanoma, ovarian, or stomach
  • Cardiovascular disorders: high blood pressure, heart disease, high blood cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Eye disorders: blindness, cataracts, glaucoma, retinitis pigmentosa
  • Kidney or liver diseases
  • Muscular or skeletal disorders: short stature or dwarfism, muscular dystrophy, rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, osteoporosis
  • Neurological or psychiatric disorders: Huntington's disease, epilepsy, manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease
  • Respiratory disorders: asthma, allergies, emphysema
  • Skin disorders: psoriasis, moles, eczema

Questions to Ask

Joan Kirchman Mitchell, chair of the National Genealogical Society's committee on family health history, provides these questions as a starting point for your history:

  • What illnesses, health conditions, or surgeries did the relative have, and when?
  • What was the exact diagnosis in each case?
  • How old was the person when the illness began? How old was the person at death?
  • If the person is deceased, when and where did he or she die? What was the cause of death?
  • What did the person look like? Did he or she have any unusual or abnormal physical characteristics?
  • Did the person smoke, drink excessively, or abuse drugs?
  • Is there any history of mental illness or very unusual personality traits or habits?
  • How many pregnancies did your female relatives have? What were the outcomes? (live birth, miscarriage, aborted fetus, twins)
  • Where did the person live and work? What was their occupation?
  • What was the racial or ethnic background of the person?

Deciphering Archaic Medical Terms

The farther back in time your research goes, the more likely you are to encounter old-fashioned names for diseases. For instance, people used to refer to stroke as apoplexy and tuberculosis as consumption. These inconsistencies can make it difficult to follow the history of a disease in your family.

The Center for Archival Collections at Bowling Green State University in Ohio has compiled a helpful list of ancient names for diseases and their modern counterparts in an article in the newsletter Archival Chronicle.

That way, when an uncle tells you about the incidence of "dropsy" on your mother's side of the family, you'll know what he's talking about.

Claudia Willen writes about environmental issues and is the author of several books on computer programming. She is based in San Francisco.

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