I’ve been helping my mom research our genealogy off and on over the last few years. Lately, she’s been hunting for tombstones. As I walk the oldest part of the cemeteries, reading the grave markers, I am continually taken aback by how many mark the burials of infants and young children.
We know on an intellectual level why it was difficult for our ancestors to make it through childhood, with disease and famine and lack of medical technology and effective medications. But can you imagine the absolute heartbreak of these early generations? A mother in 1852 can’t have felt any less emotional pain from the death of her son or daughter than I would. And then, try to imagine what emotional wounds these parents faced with this sadness, anger and possibly guilt passed down to their genetic line?
Epigenetics explains how certain genes responsible for diseases and mental illnesses can be turned off or on depending on the environment. In this documentary, “The Ghost in Your Genes,” researchers explain how looking at the genealogy of people affected with certain medical conditions often links them with certain environmental conditions. For example, people today suffering from type 2 diabetes likely had famine in the family tree and people with a tendency toward depression are linked with ancestors who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of the type of research, we can’t say that PTSD causes depression susceptibility, but we can say that there seems to be a link.