Relatively Healthy – Three reasons why ancestry research is good for my health

It touches me at the very heart. I can’t explain it, but finding my past has absorbed me. Piecing it all together, whether it is my living memory or some distant forebear, now seems to occupy every waking hour.

But as we know not all obsessions are good for your health. So I need to find out scientific reasons why this preoccupation is making me feel more complete. Why do I feel this healing process – like finding my way home? If I can rationalise it, I can then justify it to my folks at home. After all, some might suggest it is unhealthy to dwell in the past, perhaps even a bit mawkish.

Nostalgia is an illness

My kids may not be alone in believing that obsessing about the past is bad for your health. The idea of ‘nostalgia’ has not always been encouraged. The concept of nostalgia goes back to a Swiss physician who coined the phrase back in 1688 in his medical dissertation (from the Greek word ‘nostos’ meaning homecoming and ‘algos’ meaning pain). It was seen as being similar to melancholy, but described an unhealthy attachment to a particular object or place. Even before this, during the Thirty Years War at least six soldiers were sent home from the Spanish Army suffering from el mal de corazón (a bad heart). It seems that Swiss soldiers were particularly prone to the nostalgia epidemic when they heard the Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen. As a result, just playing the song was made punishable by death. Some doctors in the 18th and 19th century even became convinced that there was a bone responsible for nostalgia which they called the ‘pathological bone’.

Today things are different. Nostalgia is not seen as a form of paranoia, but rather something that can usefully be cultivated. So, is there a justification for this?

Well here are three good reasons why I feel ancestry research is good for my health. Perhaps you can add others? Not that I really need any scientific proof. But now I have some arguments ready for my younger family who feel that perhaps it is best to “leave the dead to bury the dead”.

Point 1: The ‘biological’ imperative

Aren’t we just a preprogrammed assemblage of DNA? Wouldn’t it be sensible to unpack our past? Your family’s medical history, otherwise known as a ‘medical family tree’ is something that your family doctor may find very helpful. Your inherited genes will affect more than just your family appearance. They may influence the likelihood of acquiring certain medical condition. As the American journalist, Raquel Cepeda notes –

“When we illuminate the road back to our ancestors, they have a way of reaching out, of manifesting themselves…sometimes even physically.”

― Raquel Cepeda, Bird of Paradise: How I Became LatinaPoint

But the intention is not to just heighten your anxieties about what might go wrong. The point is, you can do something about it. You can assess risks of particular diseases, change your diet or lifestyle, use medication to reduce the risk of disease, request diagnostic tests, pinpoint maladies that might otherwise be missed and assess the risk of passing on a disease to your children.

However, for me maybe a DNA test is one step too far. But looking at records of deceased relatives, including their time of death and cause of death can be a revelation – particularly if it signals something like high blood pressure that you can do something about in early adulthood. Knowing where your family members come from may point to particular health problems arising from specific ethnic groups.

2: The ‘counterclockwise’ imperative

Back in 1981 before “75 was the new 55“ a psychology professor from Harvard, Ellen Langer, undertook an experiment involving eight men in their 70s. They entered into a time warp: a converted monastery where the sounds, smells and routines were designed to conjure up the year 1959. Perry Como was on the radio and Ed Sullivan appeared on the black-and-white TV. Before arriving, each of the men undertook a dexterity, flexibility, hearing, vision and cognition tests. These tests were repeated at the end of their stay and showed an incredible improvement in each of these tests. This ‘nostalgia’ trip came to be known as the Counterclockwise story and perhaps explains why I feel energised by this process of reconnecting with the past.

Unlike some ancestry research, this is about my living memory. We all just love those online groups about ‘memories in Muggleton’ when we reminisce about childhood memories that have suddenly been revived. ‘Do you remember that Mr Willet at the corner shop who sold those toffee sherbets? ’ or ‘Can anyone spot themselves in my old school photo?’ Perhaps we are experiencing the rejuvenation described by Elly Langer in her counterclockwise experiment.

Point 3: The ‘closing the circle’ imperative

‘Some things are best left unsaid.’ This seems to have been the mantra of my family (and many others’) beyond my living memory as they emerged from the strictures of the Victorian era and the turmoil of the Edwardian era. ‘Bad stories’ stayed buried. And yet, the ghosts of our forebears seem to haunt us even in our ignorance. As the English poet, Walter de la  Mare observed:

“After all, what is every man? A horde of ghosts – like a Chinese nest of boxes – oaks that were acorns that were oaks. Death lies behind us, not in front – in our ancestors, back and back until…”

Walter de la Mare, The Return

Can the trauma experienced by our ancestors have a lasting effect? In fact, so lasting that it passes down through to the next generation (and even further). This theory of ‘epigenetics’ argues that our genes can be modified without changing the DNA code – as a result of some major trauma (e.g. starvation, sudden deaths in the family). For example, the hardships experienced by prisoners of war (POW). As a result, children and grandchildren are also impacted by a multigenerational effect.

Isn’t that what we’re doing as we untangle hidden stories from our parents or grandparents hidden past. Maybe by unearthing these ‘inconvenient’ truths, we can break free from the chains that hold us back: the ones that refused to be hidden.

I’m homeward bound. I’m willing to share my medical family tree with the doctor. I’ve got a horde of precious memories. And ghosts from the past are now less menacing. In fact, I’m feeling relatively healthy.

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