Why your family’s health history matters

Is it possible that your future health is written in your genes even before you are born? Many people don’t want to believe their health is not entirely in their hands. Your family history matters, and by taking the time now to learn more about it, you can take proactive steps to prevent potential health issues in the future.

Cancer

Although many lifestyle choices — such as poor diet, smoking or lack of exercise — contribute to certain cancers, genetics can play a big part in whether you’ll be diagnosed with this terrible disease. Chromosomal mutations that lead to cancer can be passed down from parent to child. Commonly known mutations are found in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. When one of these mutations is present, a woman’s risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer is drastically increased. If you have a close relative with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, then genetic testing is strongly encouraged. If you yourself are diagnosed with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, then prophylactic mastectomy as well as surgery to remove your ovaries (oopherectomy) should be considered and discussed with your physician.

Other cancers that can have a genetic predisposition through known mutations and syndromes include (but are not limited to) colorectal cancer, melanoma skin cancer, kidney cancer, prostate cancer and neuroendocrine cancers. If you do have a strong family history of any of these diseases, then even if no mutation is found and no syndrome is diagnosed, it is important to speak with your physician about screening and prevention, as research has yet to uncover all the possible mutations. Proper cancer screening can save lives.

Type 2 diabetes and heart disease

Many people don’t know the full impact of a strong family history of diabetes or heart disease. The media is filled with preventative lifestyle measures (as it should be!), such as portion control, weight reduction, smoking cessation and exercise. However, every now and then, someone does all the right things, and they are still diagnosed. Why? Most likely because they have a strong family history of the disease. Aboriginal, South Asian, Hispanic-American, Chinese and African ancestries have higher rates of Type 2 diabetes. If someone with one of these backgrounds is diagnosed, then it is often at a younger age, and the patient has a lower BMI. Lifestyle modifications and early screening are important in prevention and early diagnosis.

Autoimmune disorders

An autoimmune disorder is a disease in which the immune system essentially attacks itself, thinking it is foreign or a threat, such as bacteria. Many autoimmune disorders can run in families. The tricky part about inherited autoimmune disorders is that people in the family may have different autoimmune diseases. Examples of these are Type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, inflammatory bowel disease, lupus and multiple sclerosis. Since some autoimmune disorder symptoms can be non-specific early on, a family history can guide your physician down the right path in proper diagnosis and treatment.

Inherited diseases

With a family history of the above diseases or disorders, you may have an increased chance of getting it. However, there are some diseases we can either predict a person will have or give a percentage chance that they will develop based on the mother’s and father’s genes. A list of these are tested for in newborns before the baby even goes home from the hospital. Among the long list of conditions screened, included are congenital hypothyroidism and cystic fibrosis. Other diseases we inherit directly from our mother’s and father’s genes include sickle cell anemia, neurofibromatosis, polycystic kidney disease and even colour blindness. The list of inherited diseases is enormous, and that is why it’s important to know what runs in your family.

Family history matters

Family health history is important in so many areas, from asthma and allergies to depression and infertility. It’s important to ask your parents about conditions that run on both their sides to be aware of what you might be at risk for. Before conceiving, the same thing goes for your partner. If you both are at risk for the same condition, chances are your child will be too.

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