Ryan Taylor Genes are a vital part of family history
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By Ryan Taylor

An aunt of mine died at 24 of heart problems. She had an uncle who died of an aneurysm at 32. He had an uncle who died suddenly of a heart attack at 27.

Does this suggest anything? Of course it does - a genetic tendency to coronary illness at an early age.

The idea that genealogy could provide information about medical genetics is a fairly new one, but sometimes you find that research leads you to unexpected discoveries.

A new book, Unlocking Your Genetic History, by Thomas H. Shawker (Rutledge Hill Press), describes itself as 'a step-by-step guide to discovering your family's medical and genetic heritage.' It is certainly the most extensive text on this subject that I have seen.

Introducing his topic, Shawker says, "The more information you give to your doctor about your family's health, the better care you will receive." And the more information you record now, about yourself, your parents and grandparents, the better health care your descendants will have.

Genes are mysterious. Unlike the old lady who said she'd heard about them but she didn't think she had any, we know they are there. We may not understand how they work. Shawker starts by describing what makes up genes, and how that determines whether we have blue eyes or brown.

He then offers suggestions about compiling your genetic history. If you are lucky enough to have elderly relations to talk to, start with them. One advantage is that most old folks take a great interest in illness, and will be glad to remember Granny's arthritis and Auntie's cough for you.

Beware of family legends. I might have had doubts about my aunt and great-uncles except that I've seen the death certificates with their medical endorsements.

If you are the oldest in the family, it is your turn to write down what you know, not only about yourself, but your parents, grandparents, aunts and brothers. All the people who share significant amounts of their genetic makeup with your children should be included.

Medical pedigrees are different because they use shapes and symbols to convey genetic information. Shawker gives many examples to guide the reader in creating these. He discusses recessive and dominant genes in relation to various illnesses. His examples include breast cancer, Huntington's disease and Marfan.

He discusses the recent developments in tracking the Y chromosome and in detailing mitochondrial DNA, which link us with our father and mother respectively. This book might be the best introduction to these two complex subjects for the non-specialist.

He ends by providing a basic form to use when you start compiling your family's medical history, which is also a good tool for those chats with your relatives. People wishing a more extensive form can visit the Grace Schmidt Room at the Kitchener library, where a book of questions compiled by the Women's Institutes of Newfoundland is available. Newfoundland has been a leader in studying family medical histories.

This book is written in straightforward language which anyone can easily understand. Although some genetic concepts are complex, Shawker describes them in everyday words. For those interested in providing a family medical history for their children-and we all should be concerned with this-this book is an admirable place to start. You don't have to be a genealogist to do this for your family.

Shawker suggests that this century will see gene therapy, where defective genes will be replaced, and the increased use of DNA testing. Medicine, which has changed so much in the last decades, will change again. Perhaps the day will come when waving a simple wand over the body, Star-Trek style, will be enough for a diagnosis.

Posted October 4, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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