As we work to stay on top of our health, most of us put a lot of emphasis on environmental factors — and that’s a good thing. Nothing can replace eating healthily and having an active lifestyle. Things like alcohol consumption, tobacco use, diet, also place major risks.

But with each passing year, we learn more and more about the intricate relationship between genetics and our health. Many things, from addiction to various types of cancer, have at least some component that’s built into our DNA

This is why doctors place such a high emphasis on your health history, but some of this useful information is not only in your own health history, it’s in your family history as well. This is why it’s useful to dig into the past and find out what health issues appeared to be common among your ancestors. In that way, you can get specialized care and focus on preventive treatment for certain things–not because you have a problem, but because your grandfather did.

You could go about it in several ways. You can start by asking your relatives of any significant diseases or conditions. You can take a genetic test, which is something that has taken off greatly in recent years (and it’s become much cheaper)An unusual way to research this could be to review old newspapers for information about what went on in the lives of your ancestors.

These resources are off the beaten path from birth & death certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, and census records, but they can be very illuminating about your family history, particularly when you’re trying to gather genetic histories of your ancestors to anticipate health issues or even guess at your life expectancy.  

So how do old newspaper tell you anything meaningful about what may be at work inside your body? The main way is that they establish circumstances for the lives of your ancestors. Here’s an example.

Let’s say that your great-great grandfather died in 1939 of a heart attack. Assume for the time being that the diagnosis and cause of death were accurate. Because he was just 62 years old, this is an issue of concern for you, because an early death from heart trouble for him could mean you are at risk too.

After a quick newspaper search, you find that he had worked in a high-level banking occupation for 40 years. The sedentary lifestyle and intense stress of his occupation can undoubtedly take some of the blame for his death. You may still be genetically predisposed to his fate, but it’s clear that his environment was a major factor. As long as you stay active and keep stress under control, you have a good chance to avoid a similar outcome.

It’s worth noting that the newspaper doesn’t even need to mention your ancestors for it to provide you with insight to your health. Over the years, there have been countless newspaper stories about communities with abnormally high rates of cancer linked to industrial pollution or other factors. If your other research has flagged those areas as the hometowns of certain relatives who have died of cancer, it doesn’t take much to deduce that their place of residence was part of their problem.

Learning about your health is all about taking a comprehensive look at all the factors involved. That can mean not just a thorough checkup at your doctor but also a review of what has caused problems in your family. Newspapers can help to flesh out the story and give you an idea of how much of your family’s health problems have been genetic and how much may have been environmental. In this way, you’ll have the best possible chance to protect your own health, as well as that of your children.

Enjoyed this article? Join 40,000+ subscribers to the ZME Science newsletter. Subscribe now!

Estimate my solar savings!