Exploring our family health history is just another reason to look forward to the future of DNA testing. As science advances and we find out more regarding the specific genetic code responsible for various nefarious outcomes in our health, we learn there is more in play than just our genetics.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about a family who has been plagued with sudden deaths, ten in recent generations. Without warning, their hearts were stopping and no one knew why. That is until Daniel Wiggins died suddenly at the age of 29 and his family sought out a molecular autopsy. Becoming more accessible to researchers as the cost of running these tests drop, molecular autopsies allow a scientific team to analyze the DNA of the deceased, looking for genetic clues to the cause of death. In this case, the genetic sleuthing was able to turn up the perpetrator: a mutation that alters the electrical signals in the heart, causing it to stop. [Read more about this here.]
While this case was clear-cut and the gene was acting seemingly alone without an accomplice, researchers of this disorder say it only happens in 20% of cases. Which means, this devious genetic criminal has other methods we still haven’t tracked.
But for Daniel’s family, they can pursue genetic testing to determine if this specific culprit is lurking in their own genes. If found, they can take precautionary measures, like having a defibrillator installed.
Doing Our Part
Similarly, a family from Pennsylvania used their family reunion as a format for gathering family history and genetic information in order to arm its members with an action plan against a plague of cancer that is sweeping through their family. [See an article on this family here.]
Several members of the Shaffer-Peterson family have discovered a genetic test can alert them to possible pancreatic or skin cancer. Again, a gene affecting a very small number of melanoma patients was identified as the perpetrator of the Shaffer-Peterson family and has been given a 67% crime rate. This means that the chance of developing cancer if you have this particular gene is elevated by 67%.
Thankfully, melanoma is a particularly curable kind of cancer when caught early. This family has done their part in informing the family as a whole. And, they now have a sort of insurance plan that may protect the lives of their loved ones.
For both the Shaffer-Petersons and the family of Daniel Wiggins, genetic tests produce actionable results to those testing positive. There is something they can do to positively impact their health once they are aware of the presence or absence of these genes in themselves.
Environment or DNA?
Not all diseases or conditions can be attributed to our DNA. This past fall, after talking with my mother about kids and schedules, she added almost in passing, “Oh, by the way, they found another spot on my back, I am going to have it removed next week.” This is the third melanoma spot she has had removed in the past 5 years.
While my mom’s melanoma is less likely to be the result of a genetic abnormality and more likely linked to spending hours lifeguarding at the local pool, the fact she had melanoma was the sole reason I went to the dermatologist. My spot wasn’t cancer. I was just getting older. But, I am glad I went and I feel like knowing my health history has made me more aware of the measures I can take to improve it.
Tracking Your Family Health History
For most people, molecular autopsies and DNA health tests are not easily available. Not yet. For those that are, there are hundreds of questions surrounding the kinds of genetic tests and the implications for both health and legal issues.
One thing is certain. In these cases, the common thread is family history. We need to know not only the dates and places of our ancestors lives and deaths, but also the stories behind them. Whenever possible, we need to track our health history, so we can identify any trends that our DNA might be trying to tell us.
If you want to start tracking your own health history there are plenty of free and subscription online tools to get you started. In particular, TapGenes was the winner of the 2016 Innovator Showdown at RootsTech. This online and app tool is designed specifically for your family health management.
You can also create your own alternate family tree. In this unique way, you can visually look at age-at-death, diseases, or other factors pertaining to your health. Read our article titled, “How and Why to Create an Alternate Family Tree.”
Learn More About Genetics and Genealogy
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Next Steps: Working With Your Autosomal DNA Matches
This guide outlines what to do next to maximize the power of DNA testing in genealogy. With this guide in hand, genealogists will be prepared to take their DNA testing experience to the next level and make new discoveries about their ancestors and heritage.