Your ancestor's cause of death may lead to clues for further records to search. Explore your ancestor's medical genealogy to learn more about his/her life.
Genealogy Research

Medical Genealogy- Why Your Ancestor’s Health Mattered

February  is Heart Health month and in early February, we celebrated  National Wear Red Day to raise awareness of heart disease and strokes in women. Cardiovascular disease is prevalent in some of my family lines, and I expect many of yours, too.

Let’s explore what our ancestors’ medical history can tell us about them.

Today let’s talk about what I call “medical genealogy”. (Yes, I made that term up. 🙂  )

Your Ancestors + Medical Genealogy

Death certificates are a common resource used by genealogists.  As researchers, we are looking for the deceased’s personal data including birth and death dates and (fingers crossed!) parent’s names. The location of the deceased’s residence and place of burial is also information found on the death certificate.

No doubt about it. Death certificates are a tremendous genealogical resource. [Read more about the types information found on a death certificate.]

Your ancestor's cause of death may lead to clues for further records to search. Explore your ancestor's medical genealogy to learn more about his/her life.

More out of curiosity than anything else, genealogists will note the cause of death. but we fail to use the listed cause of death to provide clues and information about our ancestor(s).

Some of you may know I have a medical background, so my ancestors’ causes of death piqued my interest in what this section of the certificate could tell me about him/her.

The cause of death does not necessarily advance the family back another generation, but  can give clues about our ancestor’s lifestyle that will point the way back to more potential clues and records to search.

I encourage you to take a closer look at your ancestors’ causes of death. Certainly many people succumbed to communicable diseases such as TB or influenza that are (thankfully) much better managed today.

Medical Genealogy: What to Consider When Evaluating An Ancestor’s Cause of Death

Other causes of death that can give us information about our ancestors.

  • Was an ancestor’s death caused by an accident?
  • Was death cause by a chronic disease or a sudden illness?
  • Was the same illness the cause of multiple deaths in a family?
  • Did an illness or disease cross generations?

Death certificates are a relatively “new” thing in the records. In North Carolina, death certificates began in 1913. Knowing your family’s medical history is important not just to your research. Obviously it is important to your health as well. Knowing potential health risks that run in your family is important when addressing your own health issues.

Your Ancestors + Medical Genealogy

1. Patterns

Do you see a pattern in your ancestors’ deaths? Did many of the adult deaths result from a heart attack? Dementia? Stroke? All represent cardiovascular disease that may be present in the family? Did many of the women die as a result of breast cancer?

See what patterns you notice. Do they still exist within your family today?

2. Early Deaths

Did a number of your ancestors die at a relatively young age?  

Did a disproportionate number of children die in childhood or at about the same age?  This could represent more than just the usual childhood diseases.  This could represent an unknown inherited disease within the family such as asthma (usually managed well by today’s medical professionals) , cystic fibrosis or other genetic disorder.

3. Accidents/Foul Play

Was your ancestor killed in an accident? Or by foul play?

This can give you insight into an ancestor’s life style.

Was he/she a risk taker?

Were your ancestor killed in a farming accident?  Then look for your ancestors in rural communities.

If your ancestor met with foul play, then what was his character?

Importantly, if your ancestor’s cause of death was an accident or foul play, then you know to look further for records.  Look for newspaper articles, possible court records, inquests  and jail records.

In other words….

Consider if the manner in which your ancestor died would have likely created more types of records.

Admittedly, deciphering the meaning of some archaic medical terms can be a bit difficult. Find help with Rudy’s List of Archaic Medial Terms.

Next time you are evaluating your ancestor’s death record, take time to make sure you get ALL of the potential information. You may be quite surprised by what you learn.

Other posts of interest:


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Your ancestor's cause of death may lead to clues for further records to search. Explore your ancestor's medical genealogy to learn more about his/her life.
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  • Lisa

    Great article! I think a lot of people don’t understand that seeing a medical pattern can really give you some insite into your own health. I was adopted, and have never had any kind of medical history. 50+ years ago, I guess that is just not something they thought about including in adoption records. Once the records are sealed, there is no way to find out anything, believe me I tried. That was my whole reason for getting into genealogy. After a couple of years now, I am starting to find information. Heart problems and asthma seems to be the cause of most of the deaths so far. My hope is that others like me will see your article and go through genealogy to find their health history.

  • Barb

    I found out my great great grandmother, great grandmother, grandmother, and mother all died at the age of 77 and all of heart disease! I’m 58 now so I guess I have 19 years to go ?

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