“Like mother, like daughter.” This phrase isn't just true of quirky mannerisms and favorite foods. When it comes to your health care, your mom might be just the road map you never knew you needed.
There’s good reason you’re asked to give a full medical history when you begin seeing a new health care provider—it's possible to inherit predispositions for certain medical conditions. When you know you are at elevated risk for a genetic disease, you and your provider can take specific steps to keep you as healthy as possible. Your mother’s diagnosis could be the key to your early detection and prevention.
Here are some common genetic disorders you may benefit from talking to your mom (and then your doctor) about.
01. Breast Cancer
Breast cancer has made headlines for being a potentially hereditary—and often treatable—condition. Testing can determine whether a woman carries mutated genes (BRCA 1 & 2 or Lynch), which are markers of an increased risk for breast, ovarian, and other cancers. But who should be tested?
Dr. A. Nicky Hjort, M.D., OB-GYN shared with Verily that the average case of breast or ovarian cancer is not inherited. But those with family members who know they have the gene or were diagnosed before the age of 35, or have two family members on the same side or three all together with cancer, are good candidates for saliva testing, which consists of spitting in a cup and sending the sample to a lab. The test is a screening, so it doesn’t give a conclusive result. Still, when the result is positive, increased monitoring and care can help you detect cancer sooner.
02. High Cholesterol
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the U.S. While we can blame poor nutrition and low exercise, a genetic condition called familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), plays a role too. One out of 400 people in the general population has FH, though only about twenty percent have been diagnosed. FH causes the body to produce more cholesterol than it needs (and we do need some to make cell membranes, produce hormones, and so on). That extra cholesterol can block coronary arteries, and may eventually result in a heart attack or stroke.
If your parent has the gene, you have a fifty percent of having it as well. In people with FH, diet alone isn't enough to keep cholesterol levels healthy. Medication can remedy the risk with good results. Laboratory blood work can tell you if your cholesterol levels are too high, followed by a lipid panel and other tests to rule out diseases like diabetes or thyroid disorder. But a definite diagnosis of FH requires a gene analysis.
03. Anxiety and Depression
Psychologist Dr. Susan Bartell cites anxiety and depression as the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorders in women, and she says all mental health diagnoses—among them bipolar disorder, ADHD, OCD, and schizophrenia—are potentially hereditary. Panic, tiredness, restlessness, sleep problems, and chronic worrying are symptoms of anxiety. You may be able to identify these symptoms yourself, even if your mother was never formally diagnosed or if having an open conversation about it with her isn’t possible.
A diagnosis or showing symptoms in adolescence or early adulthood points more directly to genetics, “because this is typically when psychological disorders begin to show themselves,” says Dr. Bartell. Situational anxiety or depression that happens after a traumatic life event, brain injury, or other illness, is less likely to be a mental health concern. Dr. Bartell also notes, “Diagnoses don't always present in the same way. A mom may struggle with depression most of her life, but the daughter doesn't, but she is still at higher risk for postpartum depression than other women.” She advises, “if you believe that you are having greater emotional struggles than other people, it's important to seek professional help.”
Research shows that type 1 and 2 diabetes are caused by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Studies with identical twins who both inherit the genetic predisposition show that when one twin has type 1 diabetes, “the other gets the disease at most only half the time,” even though their genes are identical. If you have a genetic predisposition for diabetes (e.g., someone in your family history was diagnosed with diabetes), certain environmental factors—climate, viruses, being breastfed, nutrition and exercise habits—can trigger the disease. Genetic screening for predicting the risk of type 1 diabetes is a convenient procedure, but genetic testing for the risk of type 2 diabetes isn't accurate or effective.
Like genes, we can also inherit our habits. The difference, of course, is that while you can’t change your DNA, you can choose to retrain your body and mind to take on a healthier lifestyle. We have more access to health research and information than our mothers ever had at our age; we should use it to help delay or eliminate the onset of these diseases by living well and taking precautions now.
Image Credit: Britt Rene Photography