The holidays are here! You’ll likely be getting together with cousins, aunts, uncles and extended family to catch up and spend time together. While you are with them, consider asking them about your family medical history, especially if there are certain genetic disorders or diseases that run in the family.
What does it mean if a disorder runs in your family? If a disease/disorder is described as “running in the family,” that means that it affects one or more family members. Some disorders that affect multiple family members are caused by gene mutations, which can be inherited (passed down from parent to child). Other conditions that appear to run in families are not caused by mutations in single genes. Instead, environmental factors such as dietary habits or a combination of genetic and environmental factors are responsible for these disorders.
It is not always easy to determine whether a health condition in a family is inherited. A genetics professional can use a person’s family history (a record of health information about a person’s immediate and extended family) to help determine whether a disorder has a genetic component. He or she will ask about the health of people from several generations of the family, usually first-, second-, and third-degree relatives (Genetics Home Reference, 2018).
Even if a condition runs in your family, there are steps you can take to break that pattern. Your lifestyle makes a huge difference. For example, when it comes to heart disease, more than 100 types of genes may play a small role in a person’s risk (Jaret, 2012). A person’s daily habits, like how often they exercise, what they eat, whether or not they smoke, etc. can greatly affect heart health, and are 100% controllable.
For diabetes, Type 2 diabetes is somewhat about genes, but also about lifestyle as well. Exercising several times each week makes a big difference, and eating a well-balanced, healthy diet does too.
When it comes to breast cancer, only about 5% to 10% of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary. Most inherited cases of breast cancer are associated with mutation in two genes: BRCA1 and BRCA2. The function of the BRCA genes is to repair cell damage and keep breast, ovarian, and other cells growing normally. But when these genes contain mutations that are passed from generation to generation, the genes don’t function normally and breast, ovarian, and other cancer risk increases. It is important to note that having a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation does not mean that you will be diagnosed with cancer (BreastCancer.org, 2018).
There are some steps you can take, though, to minimize your risk. First, genetic testing is available if someone has a BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation. If you’re at high risk because of an abnormal gene, you and your doctor can develop a screening plan tailored to your unique situation. You may start being screened when you’re younger than 40, for instance. A screening plan may include things like: a monthly breast self-exam, a yearly breast exam by your doctor, and a yearly mammogram.
The main takeaway is that it’s never too late to start incorporating healthy habits into your lifestyle, and lower your risk for certain diseases.
So when you are gathered around the table at Thanksgiving, it pays to dig for information about family medical history. Though it is also important to note that your family history does not have to become your future. The steps you take today can lead to a longer, healthier life!
- Genetics Home Reference: http://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/inheritance/runsinfamily
- Genes vs. Lifestyle: https://www.webmd.com/healthy-aging/features/genes-or-lifestyle
- Breast Cancer: https://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/genetics