“In all of us, there’s a hunger, marrow deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we come from,” writes author Alex Haley in the book Roots.

While you may not be able to trace your existence all the way back to Adam and Eve, a plunge into your family’s medical history can reveal more secrets than you can imagine.

An ancestral pedigree can not only help identify the various illnesses that have been running in your family, but is also an opportunity to fix these problems in the present and future generations. With ancestry records now easily available online, more and more people are discovering their family’s health.

In the first part of this two-part series, we tell you how genes play an important role in your health and why you should give genetic testing a shot.

Knowing Your Ancestors’ Illnesses: Is It A Good Idea?
Several health issues begin to crop up with age, so it might be important to find out why your uncle died young or which rare disease your grandmother suffered from.

Two years ago, Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie Pitt tested positive for a mutation in the BRCA1 gene (which increases the risk of breast and ovarian cancer) and went in for a double mastectomy surgery (removal of both the breasts) to reduce the risks that came with it. Earlier this year (in March), she stunned the world once again by announcing that she underwent preventive surgery to have her fallopian tubes and ovaries removed. Cancer experts all over the world lauded Jolie Pitt’s move.

Mr Kevin Sweet, an associate professor of genetics at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, says, “Family medical history is one of the best means to help a person know more about their risk of developing common diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.  Having a close family member (parent, sibling or child) or relatives affected with the same or similar disease may increase your own risk, as you might share a few risk factors.”

How Genetic Testing Can Help You
Dr Catherine Navarro, a women’s health specialist based in Palm Beach, Florida highlights the importance of genetic testing in the hunt for medical issues through the family tree. She says, “Genetic testing should be undertaken by anyone who wants to know what possibilities of future medical issues and those they may have who are willing to make dramatic lifestyle changes to prevent this.”

She further insists that genetic testing can open doors to determining diseases such as Lou Gehrig’s and cystic fibrosis and should be especially encouraged for families in which these rare diseases are prevalent.

To conclude Mr Sweet says, “It is important to recognize that while a family medical history provides information about the risk of specific health concerns, this alone does not provide a complete picture. Other influences such as environmental and lifestyle factors also play a role, and some individuals with no family history of a disease may still be at risk.”

In the second part of this series, we give you five reasons why you SHOULD be digging into your family history.

For more interesting stories, visit our Health page. Read more about Diseases & Conditions here.

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