Trace Your Health

By Barbara Krasner-Khait Premium

The most common genetic diseases

? Heart disease: coronary atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, hyperlipidemia

? Diabetes

? Cancer: retinoblastomas, colon, stomach, endometrium, lung, bladder, breast, skin (melanoma)

? Neurological illnesses and disorders: Alzheimer’s disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), Gaucher’s disease, Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, neurofibromatosis, Parkinson’s disease, Tay-Sachs disease, Tourette’s syndrome

? Mental illnesses and behavioral conditions: alcoholism, anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, manic depression, schizophrenia

? Other genetic diseases: cleft lip and cleft palate, clubfoot, cystic fibrosis, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, galactosemia, hemophilia, Hurler’s syndrome, Marfan’s syndrome, phenylketonuria, sickle cell disease, Thalassemia

? Medical conditions with genetic links: arthritis, asthma, baldness, migraine headaches, obesity, periodontal disease, speech disorders

? To translate antiquated names for diseases and ailments, see <>.

Family health questions to ask

? Are there any unusual traits ?

? Were there miscarriages or stillbirths?

? Was anyone extremely obese or thin?

? Who suffered from major diseases?

? Did anyone have reconstructive surgery?

? Who was hospitalized, for what and how long?

? Did cousins marry cousins?

? Did anyone abuse alcohol or drugs?

? Did anyone suffer from recurring maladies, such as allergies (and to what), headaches and others?

Health and heritage

Working within a specific self-contained genetic community delights geneticists, much as it does genealogists, because it makes traits and patterns easier to identify. Here are some examples:

? Amish — Dr. Alan Shuldiner, medical director of the Joslin Center at the University of Maryland Medical System, has been working with the Amish community in Lancaster County, Penn., since 1993 to learn more about the genetic origins of diabetes. “While diabetes does not occur more frequently in the Amish than in other population groups, the Amish are a closed population with a fixed gene pool and have very large families and essentially complete genealogies dating back 14 generations,” he says. The study has been expanded to assess thyroid conditions, osteoporosis and longevity.

? Polish Jews – To aid his search for carriers of his family’s Beta-Thalassemia trait, Stanley Diamond began an initiative that’s grown into a nonprofit organization known as Jewish Records Indexing-Poland, an Internet-based database of Jewish vital records in Poland <>. This database is helping geneticists and Jewish families, particularly those at increased risk for hereditary conditions and diseases, trace their medical histories. Diamond’s work has provided geneticists with the greatest number of generations ever reconstructed in the study of Beta-Thalassemia trait in an isolated gene pool. Dr. Robert Burk, professor of epidemiology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, is studying prostate cancer in the Jewish population as principal investigator of the Cancer Longevity, Ancestry and Lifestyle project. “Through the establishment of a searchable database from Poland, careful analysis of the relationship between individuals will be possible at both the familial and the molecular level,” says Burk. “This will afford us the opportunity to learn not only more about the Creator’s great work, but will also allow researchers new opportunities to dissect the cause of many diseases in large established pedigrees.”

? Icelandic — In 1996 Decode Genetics <> launched a controversial project to build a database of all known Icelanders for the past 1,100 years. Eventually it aims to include more than 700,000 individuals — half of all the people who’ve ever lived in the isolated island nation. Relatively homogeneous, Icelanders have also been meticulous record-keepers. But the project has raised ethical issues about the privacy of genetic information. (For more on Icelandic genealogy, see <>.)

? Acadian – In August 1999 the Louisiana State University Medical Center organized a conference, “Genetics of the Acadian People,” to create an awareness of the unique genetic history of people from the former Acadia region in eastern Canada. Acadians are at increased risk for some genetic diseases, which can range from 35-250 percent higher among Acadians and Cajuns than the national average. The Acadians were French settlers who were exiled from Canada in the 1750s; Cajuns are their descendants who settled in Louisiana.

From the October 2000 issue of Family Tree Magazine