Nine Steps to a Family Health History

By Barbara Krasner-Khait Premium

1. Interview family
2. Find death certificates
3. Search for obituaries
4. Examine cemetery and funeral records
5. CHeck mortality schedules
6. Look for insurance records
7. Find military service and pension records
8. Research hospital and other medical records
9. Learn about previous genetic testing in your family

Exploring your family’s health history is a lot like digging into genealogy. You still need to know who’s who and how they’re related. But you also need to discover hereditary health problems and causes of death. Here are nine steps to get started:

1. Interviewing—Start with your parents, siblings and their children. Then add data from and about grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. The more information you can gather, the better. Be sympathetic to and honor the need for privacy—requesting medical information requires diplomacy and sensitivity. Some interviewing rules of thumb:

  • Develop a list of questions and medical conditions you may be looking for.
  • Focus on those branches and individuals who may be able to provide the key leads for expanding your search.
  • Never assume anything. People often don’t know or can’t remember their exact medical condition. Check and double-check. Ask for permission to talk to family doctors or anyone who’s been involved with the family’s health. This is particularly relevant when tracking genetic traits that can be a potential disaster for future generations, since not all family members may recognize or accept the implications of the trait they carry.
  • Enlist the help of others in the family—particularly family members who are doctors—and other medical professionals who understand and support your research.
  • Information on any medical ailment may prove useful. Pay special attention to serious conditions such as cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, depression and alcoholism. Be sure to also jot down your relative’s age when an illness was diagnosed.

2. Death certificates—An attending physician usually provides the primary cause of death and contributing factors on a death certificate. Ask your relatives about medical conditions, when the deceased first got sick, how long the illness lasted, the duration of the hospital stay, and so on. There could be more to the story than the death certificate indicates. For instance, my father’s death certificate gives his cause of death as “heart failure,” but he suffered from diabetes-related kidney failure and was on dialysis. You’ll also run across “old age” as a cause of death, which should lead you to ask more questions.

3. Obituaries—Carefully reading an obituary can help identify useful medical facts. Look for clues such as where to send donations, which may list a medical foundation. Don’t assume, however, that a specific foundation relates directly to the person’s illness.

4. Cemetery and funeral records—Using a map of Chicago’s Waldheim Cemetery, Stanley Diamond was able to locate the gravestones of two immigrant family members, first cousins who married each other. With the help of a cemetery staff member, Diamond contacted the man responsible for the graves’ perpetual care—who turned out to be his cousin, Alex, also diagnosed as a Beta-Thalassemia carrier. This breakthrough let Diamond trace the genesis of the trait back one more generation in Poland.

5. Mortality schedules—These will probably be helpful only if your family came to America before the massive wave of immigration that began about 1880. The federal government kept these lists between 1850 and 1885; they included information on cause of death for 12-month periods before each census (June 1-May 31, 1849, 1859, 1869, 1879, 1884), organized by state. Not all deaths are represented, but the schedules are worth consulting, especially if you have no other vital records. You can find them in state archives, the Daughters of the American Revolution Library in Washington, DC, the National Archives in Washington, DC, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City and its Family History Centers.

6. Insurance records—As you rummage through family papers and interview relatives, note any information you may find about insurance policies and the insurance company. Though the information may be difficult to obtain, the company might hold more detailed medical facts worth a written inquiry.

7. Military service and pension records—Why might a family member have been rated “4F” in World War II? Did he receive any special compensation as a result of an injury? Checking service and pension records can be illuminating.

8. Hospital and doctor records—You may be able to get medical information if you know the name of a recently deceased family member’s physician and the hospital where he or she died. Many institutions keep records for seven to 10 years, but you may need special permission to access them. Even if this doesn’t apply to you right now, it’s a good idea to start keeping track of physician and hospital names associated with each family member. In Texas, for instance, medical record requests are guaranteed under state law, including access to records of deceased or incompetent patients; a parent, spouse or adult child making the request in writing must be accommodated.

9. Previous genetic testing results—Have any family members been tested before? If so, obtaining the results of those tests can be extremely helpful to your history.