Ashkenazi Jewish Heritage: Genetics and Parkinson's

As a kid, my family was never conscious of our heritage. I can remember asking where we came from when I was in elementary school, but other than knowing my Nana’s Irish side, we were generically German. I knew my mom’s father was Jewish, but since he died when my mom was 8, we never knew the Jewish side of our family since the Catholic and Jewish sides lost touch with one another.

As for us, we were what we were. We were no longer a part of the Old World. Such was our assimilation into the American Dream. This answer wasn't detailed, but it was good enough for me. Growing up in between Reading and Lancaster, we connected more to local heritage, like PA Dutch cooking and the comfort foods of the PA Coal Regions.

Nevertheless, there was Italian food, and at some point in fifth grade, we tried tacos. There was a proud Irish side of the family, who lives and dies for Notre Dame. This makes sense since my mom’s cousin is the coach of the girls’ basketball team who won the championship this year for March Madness. Our family was still just American.

Then something happened about a month ago.

Family history of Parkinson's

My mom’s cousin, Suzie, sent us a copy of my great grandfather’s Louis’ death certificate, as well as data on our other relations. This had a few eye-opening thoughts.

First is the phrase “Paralysis Agitans.” This is an old-school term for Parkinson’s. If this is on your ancestor’s forms, then you probably found the missing link to the genetic connection for your condition. Right then and there, I found mine.

Prior to that day, I never knew this man’s name, and then suddenly I knew a major part of his life.

The etymology of racism

My family grew up in poorer regions of Pennsylvania in a largely immigrant population. However, when a document writer from well over half a century ago called my relative a "huckster," I became aware of a subtle knock on their lives (especially since others called them merchants and peddlers).

I have to say that I growled a lot at that, but seeing as the people who wrote these forms with a lot of other incorrect information lived in the 1920s to 1950s, it didn’t seem productive to feel angsty at a person mangling facts and linguistically insulting Jewish people. Besides, the history and success of Gittleman Shoes speaks for itself.

This event did make me more protective and defensive for what many “different” people go through. Whether as a person with disabilities or as a person with a persecuted religion, many people deal with this casual speech. That's why People First Language is so important.

Some people use the term allies for those who stand with oppressed groups, but I call it being a human. I’m sure many other people had these awakenings, too, and now they stand up for people in all their different lives. This is what it's all about.

Heritage and health risks

Several weeks ago, I completed my own 23 and Me test for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. Knowing that I had Russian/Polish Jewish blood now, I wanted to know what my Ashkenazi Jewish heritage was.

The answer was 29.9%, which is significant. However, I came up with none of the associated variants that link me to Parkinson’s (though the test only sought out certain variants). My symptoms say differently, but that's not necessarily this link. Because of the close associations of this heritage, there is a chance of being more likely to contract Crohn’s disease, Gaucher disease, Canavan disease, and Tay-Sachs disease.

I don't have these issues, but others might. Also, having this genetic history is something that comes up in research requests. If this is you, I would consider being in the study. Keep in mind, a 23 and Me test is non-invasive. You simply spit in a tube. It’s not like there are needles, so this doesn’t hurt. You just need to wash your hands.

The other search results did not show breast cancer history (another Ashkenazi potential issue); however, they did show a risk for celiac disease, so this is something to learn about, too. I knew I would have a risk for Alzheimer’s since my Gram died from this. In the end, I crossed that bridge a long time ago. However, I still have a long way to go with it.

Once again, I recommend considering this. Sure, it’s not 100% since they don’t scan for everything. Also, being at risk doesn’t mean the “bomb” will explode. However, it helps when it comes to medical history. That means a lot when it comes to prevention.

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