Every day, scientists discover new ways through which genes influence our life. Whether it’s our ability to play a musical instrument or just the likelihood that we’ll go bald, research is constantly finding new links between our DNA and what happens to us.
Your overall health is a great way to utilize this information. One of the key factors in many illnesses is family history, and if yours indicates that heart trouble, for example, is a concern, you can take steps to fight back against the factors that you can control, such as diet, cholesterol, and blood pressure. So this opens a whole new world of usefulness for genetic research. For years, we have been content to learn the names, hometowns, and trades of our ancestors, but now we want to know more about their lives.
As you do an obituary search during your research, move a little deeper in the text than just the list of survivors and the details of the funeral. Sometimes the details of donation requests will reveal the hobbies, interests, or health of the deceased. Your desire to rescue unwanted animals could have stemmed from an ancestor’s like-minded support of animal charities. You get the idea.
In decades past, of course, such memorial requests were less common. But if you look at some other simple things, you can often tie together a complete picture. For example, if your great-grandfather only lived to be 63 years old, that alone wouldn’t necessarily suggest anything significant about his health, given the life expectancy of someone born in the 1800s. But if your research has revealed that his siblings, nieces, and nephews lived to be much older while his descendants also had shorter lives, you can begin to infer that maybe there is something of concern in your branch.
Of course, there is much more that goes into predicting the length of your life than just how long your ancestors lived. Remember that they often died of complications from simple conditions like high blood pressure that we can detect and manage today.
Another possibility is environmental conditions. Your great-grandfather may have died of cancer because he was a farmer and was exposed to DDT, a pesticide that has since been banned for its carcinogenic properties. And his children may have done likewise because they farmed alongside him, while their aunts, uncles, and cousins all worked in other jobs and suffered no such exposure.
The important thing is to go into such research with an open mind and a detective’s mentality. Don’t draw too many conclusions from one-dimensional facts. And don’t get too burdened down if your research suggests negative things because there are a lot of useful and fun facts you can learn as well.
Enjoy this potential! If you get a few generations back and discover a trend toward musical talent, take that as inspiration (or just an excuse!) to sit down at a piano for the first time.
Not everything has to come back to you, of course. If your family history shows many ancestors who did woodworking–a trade that could be rooted in a genetic predisposition to mechanical skill–it could explain why a migration took them from one forested area to another instead of to the farmlands or cities in between. This can really help tie up some loose ends in your story.
Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about–finding the who, what, when, where, and why of your family, the people, places, and things that helped to shape you.
Enjoy the ride! After all, it’s in your DNA.
Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!