A Bissel* of Knowledge Goes a Long Way

* bissel (Yid.) little bit

Recently I was reading Jen Baldwin’s blog post “Know Your Family Medical History” [1. Baldwin, Jen. “Know Your Family Medical History.” Ancestral Breezes, 25 June 2012. http://www.ancestralbreezes.blogspot.com/2012/06/know-your-family-medical-history.html: 2012.] and it reminded me of the value of this knowledge. I don’t know about you, but I do not think about the medical aspects of my family tree very often. Genealogy is defined as the study of family ancestries and histories, but I tend to think of it as being more related to genes (duh, it’s in the name) than about lineages and history. The things I inherited from my parents are many, but the details like my brown hair, brown eyes, and pale skin are obvious. There are other less tangible things such as my skill at math, sense of humor, and sensitive nature. These are all positive things that I inherited through my parents, but over the years as my grandparents have passed on I have become more aware of the possible health concerns in my future. In my family there is a history of high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, colon cancer, and breast cancer. These things add up to a lot of potential health concerns for me and my future children.

Jen Alford and her parents

As I have gotten older I have come to realize the many health issues that I have inherited. Though I do not have any children yet; I do plan to do my best to make sure that I have a healthy child. I knew that many parents worry about birth defects, but I was not aware that being Jewish raises unique concerns. I was quite surprised to learn that there are over a dozen genetic disorders associated with Jewish ethnicity. When my mom showed me a pamphlet she found at the South Bend Jewish Center titled, “A Young Couple’s Guide to Jewish Genetic Disorders & Screening.” [2. Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders. A Young Couple’s Guide to Jewish Genetic Disorders & Screening. Leaflet. Chicago, Illinois: CCJGD, 2010.]  I thought it was a bit amusing that it focused on those preparing for marriage and the eventual hope to have children. After all, I don’t think there are many people who look at a potential mate and think, “Oh, I wonder what genetic disorders are in his DNA?” Nevertheless, I did see that they explained well why it is beneficial to know such things when planning for a family. The pamphlet was developed by the Chicago Center for Jewish Genetic Disorders and included some very thought-provoking information. Many of these genetic disorders are due to the fact that up until the 1900’s, Jews lived in small communities where they intermarried often.

Initially I had only heard of Tay-Sachs disease as one that Jews needed to be concerned about. Apparently this disease has been nearly eliminated from the Jewish population and more non-Jewish babies are born with it. As I read the descriptions of the various genetic disorders I saw how devastating having a child born with these diseases could be. Many result in the death of the child at a very young age. Obviously not everyone is able to plan for pregnancy, but if you can meet with a genetic counselor beforehand it will prepare you for the challenges and decisions you may face. I would also recommend that you pass this information on to your other relatives and your own children. It is said, “Knowledge is power,” and I hope that this article will spur you to delve deeper into your DNA and what you carry. A wonderful resource to aid in the understanding is The University of Utah’s website [3. Genetic Science Learning Center. “What are Genetic Disorders?.” Learn.Genetics, 31 December 1969. http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/disorders/whataregd/: 2012.] which provides not only information on the diseases, but actually has teaching aids as well.

After reading the pamphlet produced by the Chicago Center, my first thought was, “I’m not going marrying a Jew. So what does it matter?” Not so! Even if only one of you is Jewish there is good reason to seek a genetic screening. Though your chances of passing on a genetic disorder are reduced by half, there is still reason to consult a professional. Now if you are thinking, “This doesn’t apply to me at all! I’m not Jewish.” Give a moment to think of your own heritage. There are a number of populations that carry genetic disorders worth watching out for. Take a moment to decide for yourself whether genetic counseling might be good for you if you choose to have children. There are a number of excellent websites that offer not only information, but guidance on where to get a professional’s opinion. Here are a few websites that I have found informative.

March of Dimes

National Organization for Rare Disorders 

LiveStrong’s List of Common Genetic Disorders

Photo Credits: © Jennifer Alford 2012

© Jennifer Alford (Jenealogy) 2012

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue of The In-Depth Genealogist. Receive The In-Depth Genealogist free by subscribing HERE.

 

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