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Combining genealogy with genetic research

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Sitting down with a genetic counselor is much like speaking to a genealogist with a medical degree. After all, a genetic counselor works with charts that resemble pedigrees and family trees, though without names, just squares for males and circles for females, with lines connecting relationships. Genetic counselors can help map out the likelihood of being a carrier or being infected by certain inherited traits and diseases.

In much the same way, DNA research has shown specific markers carry a higher probability of certain inherited diseases. For example, actress Angelina Jolie learned she had the BRCA1 gene, making her at high risk for breast and ovarian cancer. Coupled with her family’s history of cancer, Jolie opted for a preventive double mastectomy. (See "My Medical Choice," New York Times, 14 May 2013.)

In another case, Janine Jagger, Professor of Medicine at the University of Virginia, had several years of abdominal pain and fevers with no known cause. Another doctor suggested she could have familial Mediterranean fever (FMF), which is typically found in people of Middle Eastern descent—though none appear on Jagger's known family tree. Oddly enough, she discovered in an old newspaper that one of her ancestors, Captain William Smith Young (b. 1829), was "attacked with fever and ague to which he is subject." He was a steamboat captain of the ill-fated Narragansett, which hit another steamboat in 1880. The crash, which made front-page news across the country, caused the deaths of 50 passengers. During the formal inquiry, the captain's testimony was reported verbatim in the New York Times, including the passage that he was unable to attend a court appearance due to symptoms similar to Jagger's. Since finding the newspaper account, she has connected to other Young descendants and found a pattern of FMF. (See "All I Want for Ramadan Is My Own Mutation," Huffington Post, 8 November 2013.)

So, when you’re typing data into your genealogy database, don’t overlook the medical fields such as cause of death, hospitalization, or illness. Seeing patterns recorded in death certificates, medical reports, and obituaries or having first-hand knowledge or hearing family stories of a medical nature may increase your awareness of risk factors and prevention for possible diseases, such as certain cancers, heart disease, substance abuse, diabetes, and depression.

You may not need a genetic counselor, but if you're like me, you'll bring your family tree charts to your doctor to discuss your deep medical history. Genealogy not only keeps your mind busy, it can help you live longer and better.

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