Family history isn’t just about the past — where health is concerned, it also can predict the future. Your family tree influences your risk for inherited medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, which makes family medical history an important legacy for any genealogist to leave. But what’s the best way to identify and record those clues? It helps to create a report or chart showing health conditions that have affected your family. We investigated both traditional genealogy software and specialized programs to see how well they let you record and report on your family health history. Let’s find out how each one fared in our checkup.
Genealogy Software: Just the facts
Most popular genealogy programs can record a few health and physical traits. Family Tree Maker <familytreemaker.com>, for example, has built-in facts for Cause of Death, Height, Physical Description and Weight. To add any of these facts to a person in your file, click People, use the index or pedigree to find the person you want to edit, click the Person tab and click on the plus button to add a fact. All four of these facts appear on Individual and Register Reports.
Personal Ancestral File <www.familysearch.org> has fields for Cause of Death and Physical Description. Cause of Death shows up on an Individual Summary report, but Physical Description doesn’t appear on any report. To add fields for Hospitalization and Illness, doubleclick on a name in Family or Pedigree view, click on Options, hit New Event/Attribute, select a field and click the Select button.
DNA has quickly become an important genealogical tool, and Legacy Family Tree <www.legacyfamilytree.com> and The Master Genealogist <www.whollygenes.com> now let you record DNA test results. Both programs have fields for Y-DNA (paternal line) values; The Master Genealogist also supports mitochondrial, or mtDNA (maternal line), values.
Even if you take advantage of these programs’ health- and DNA-related fields or create custom events (facts), you still can’t easily generate charts or reports that show trends in your family. MacFamilyTree <www.synium.de/products/macfamilytree> does have a built-in charting option for genograms.
Government Software: Off the charts
My Family Health Portrait <www.hhs.gov/familyhistory>, a free program from the US Department of Health and Human Services, makes it easy to record your family health history. You can download a Windows version; a new Web version works with Macs, too.
Enter information about yourself, your parents, grandparents and children — the people most relevant to your health history — and, optionally, other relatives, such as uncles, aunts and cousins. The program tracks six chronic diseases we know how to help prevent (heart disease, stroke, diabetes, colon cancer, breast cancer and ovarian cancer), but you can add other ailments, too.
After you’ve plugged in your family information, the program produces a chart of your family health history and a family tree showing health disorders that might’ve been passed down through the generations. You can print a separate chart for each disease to see if your family is prone to any illnesses. Then review the charts with your doctor to develop appropriate disease-prevention strategies and to see if you should be vigilant for certain conditions.
Genogram Software: A dose of detail
A genogram is a flow chart that shows physical and mental health and emotional relationships over generations. It uses a standard format and symbols, with males represented by squares and females by circles. The chart may show birth order, marriages, divorces, pregnancies, deaths and other life cycle events. It also can depict biological conditions, such as blindness and deafness, as well as mental illness and characteristics of emotional relationships, such as closeness and conflict.
Doctors, psychologists, family therapists and marriage counselors use software to create genogram charts — such as the $197 SmartDraw for Windows <www.smartdraw.com/encyclopedia/genogram.htm> and the $125 Genogram-Maker Millennium for Windows or Mac <www.genogram.org/products.html>.
Genealogists are better off looking at two lower-priced alternatives. Gene-Weaver <www.geneweaveronline.com>, a $39.95 Windows program, will import a GEDCOM file with information you’ve already entered in your regular genealogy software. Then you can create and print a Medical Genogram Report and a Medical Pedigree Report showing each person’s age and cause of death.
A much more elaborate program, the $49 GenoPro for Windows <www.genopro.com>, lets you record additional family details and create sophisticated charts. The program imports GEDCOM files, and you can record information such as eye and hair color, height, weight, even financial status. To track other traits or a particular genetic disease, you can create custom data fields. Charts can include photos and display both ancestors and descendants in the same tree, along with multiple spouses. HTML reports include hyperlinks for navigating your family tree. Symbols distinguish between biological and adoptive parents and indicate situations such as cohabitation and separation. GenoPro opens up a new range of options for recording family information and creating graphical charts unavailable in regular genealogy software.
Mine these sources for information on your ancestors’ health, physical traits and emotional relationships:
• Relatives are good sources, but keep in mind that they may consider some issues embarrassing or confidential.
• Family photos could reveal physical traits.
• Old letters may describe emotional attachments.
• Death certificates and funeral home records usually provide the cause of death. Obituaries sometimes include this information, too.
• Census mortality schedules give the cause of death for people who died during the year preceding the census date in 1850, 1860, 1870 and 1880.
• The 1850 through 1880 censuses identify the “deaf and dumb,” “blind,” “insane” and “idiotic.”
• Seven “nonpopulation” schedules created at the time of the 1880 federal census cover “insane inhabitants,” “idiots” (the mentally deficient), “deaf-mutes,” “blind,” “homeless children,” “inhabitants in prison” and “pauper and indigent inhabitants.” See <archives.gov/genealogy/census/nonpopulation> for locations of these records.
• Civil War service and pension files often provide the soldier’s physical description, including hair and eye color, complexion and height.