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An Exchange of Health Histories

Look at your family tree and you will see many of the health problems that will affect you someday. We all have heard this common wisdom.

I had a rare opportunity to do so last month when my Baltic cruise included a one-day stop in Helsinki. My relatives in Finland were eager to get together.

We spent the morning in a conference room at the new Oodi Central Library. There we compared family photos and swapped stories. One of my cousins also thought to bring up the idea of illnesses that might run through our Lampinen heritage.

None of us carries the Lampinen surname today, but we all descend from Matti Lampinen (1835-1894) and Anna Miettinen (ca. 1832-?). This couple was of Karelian stock and lived in eastern Finland.

Karelians have well-documented histories of heart disease. The cousins reported that many in their families suffered from this. The same is true among my Finnish relatives in the United States.

The cousins also told me that members of the small Karelian population tended to marry one another, and this in-breeding resulted in the prevalence of allergies and asthma among these people. I also see this tendency toward allergies in descendants of my Finnish great-grandparents.

Looking at my extended family tree confirmed some of the health predispositions I had already observed in my small group of Finnish-American relatives. I added the information about heart disease and allergies to my family health history when I returned home. I also sent it around to my American cousins.

Not everyone has the good fortune to compare health notes with distant relatives. I am glad one of the cousins I visited that day wanted to trade this type of information. All of us now know more about what lies in our genes.

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