Friday, October 16, 2020

Discovering a Family Health History

Mary Lou was the mother of my half-sister Laurie.  I try to write about her on her birthday, October 16.  In previous years I've shared some fun stories and memories about her (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016), but this year I have a more serious topic.

Because I love genealogy so much, of course I did research on Laurie's mother's side of the family.  It also helped that I knew Mary Lou.  I had the opportunity to ask her some questions about her family, but I didn't make significant progress until after she passed away.

I had collected a reasonable amount of information and had entered everything into my family tree database.  I only had four generations at the time, but I had everyone's birth and death dates.  So I printed out a basic family tree to share with my sister.

I was looking over the tree and suddenly noticed something.  In four generations of men, only one had lived to see the age of 60.

I thought I must have made a mistake.  I went back to all of my documents and certificates and checked everything.  But I wasn't wrong.

In Mary Lou's generation, her brother Robert died at 54.  Her cousin William died at 50.

Her father Francis died at 49.  Her paternal uncle Paul was dead at 59.

Her grandfather William died at the age of 58.  And his father, John, died at 57.

Okay, I was getting a little creeped out.

When I looked at the death certificates, the cause of death was the same for every man:  heart attack.

The only man in the family I have found so far who lived to see 60 was Mary Lou's cousin Jimmy, William's brother.

I've often wondered if Jimmy looked around and noticed that his brother, father, cousin, uncle, and grandfather weren't around any more, and whether he knew that they all died of heart attacks.  I actually met him once but didn't feel I could ask him that question.  I do know that he retired young and that he survived to celebrate his 60th birthday.

I hadn't looked for this health history in Mary Lou's family, but it was so striking that I couldn't help but see it once I put the information together.

But putting together a health history of your family is something you can do when you research your family history.  Read all those death certificates to learn what the causes of death were.  Do you see any trends?  Let other family members know about them.

I know not everyone gets into genealogy (!), but this is one aspect of it that you can share with your family members that they might appreciate a little more.  Maybe you can save someone's life by letting them know which health problems are part of their history.

Mary Lou would have been 82 years old today.


  1. I'd never thought to look at death certificates in that way. I suppose with DNA testing becoming the norm there will be an option to have a 'health' one done. I'm not sure if I'd want to do that though!

    1. I hadn't intended to do that with these death certificates, but the short lifespans of the four generations of Bowen men leapt off the page at me, prompting me to look at their death certificates for the information. I know that some people specificallly do look for this type of health information, though.


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