You’ve probably been to a doctor’s appointment where you were asked a question like, “Do you have a history of cancer in your family?” Sometimes this question can catch you off-guard if you don’t know everything about your parents’ or grandparents’ medical history. Here is a look at common diseases that you should look for in your family medical history so that you’ll be better prepared for your next doctor’s appointment.
Cancer risk is highly complex. About 60% of cancer cases are sporadic—meaning that they occur in individuals who have no known genetic risk factors or significant family histories of cancer. This means that about 40% of cancer cases are either familial or hereditary—meaning that they can be tied in some way to genetics (granted, environmental factors can and often do come into play, as well.) The bottom line is this: knowing your family’s history with cancer can help you avoid the worst. If you know that your mother and grandmother both battled breast cancer, for example, you could get more frequent cancer screenings starting at an earlier age. If you know that lung cancer is more frequent in your family, you might quit smoking and adopt certain lifestyle changes that could decrease your risk.
Researchers have concluded that heredity likely does come into play when considering a person’s risk for heart disease. Your risk of heart disease compounds when you combine hereditary factors with habits such as smoking and poor exercise, so if you have seen heart disease occur in your family, it is a good idea to adopt lifestyle changes that will decrease your risk for heart disease.
High Blood Pressure
As with heart disease, high blood pressure likely gleans some influence from genetics as well. Because high blood pressure increases your risk of heart disease or stroke, it’s important to take precautionary steps to keep your blood pressure down—especially if you’ve noticed a trend of high blood pressure in your family. You can help prevent high blood pressure by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and limiting alcohol use.
Some people are definitely born more likely to develop diabetes than others, but diabetes is not inherited in a simple pattern. With Type 1 Diabetes, for example, a person usually has to inherit risk factors from both parents, and even then there is usually some environmental factor that triggers it. With Type 2 Diabetes, meanwhile, there is a stronger link to family history (especially since obesity tends to run in families.) Even still, lifestyle and environmental factors come into play here, as well. If you know that Type 2 Diabetes runs in your family, you can work with your doctor to adopt a diet and exercise routine that will lower your risk of developing diabetes.
Your risk of stroke can be attributed to many factors, some of which are genetic themselves. High blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity, for example, can all increase your risk for stroke. As with other medical conditions discussed in this article, you should be screened regularly and adopt lifestyle changes that will lower your risk if you have seen one or more members of your family have a stroke.
Did you know that addiction can also be genetic? According to this article, your chances of developing an addiction to drugs or alcohol can multiply as many as eight times if your parents were addicts, due to hereditary factors that were passed down from your parents. You aren’t doomed to developing a substance addiction if one or both of your parents was an addict, as many other factors are involved as well, but it’s a good thing to be aware of—especially if you exhibit other factors that could lead to addiction, such as mental illness or an inability to cope with stress.
In addition to those medical conditions that can be triggered by a combination of hereditary and environmental factors, there are also heritable diseases, which are caused by inheriting a mutated gene from one or both parents. These diseases tend to become apparent early on in life, so they are more something to be aware of if you are planning on having children. Exploring your and your partner or spouse’s family histories can help you know what to expect in terms of medical complications with your child. Some heritable diseases include…
- Celiac disease
- Cystic fibrosis
- Down syndrome
- Huntington’s disease
- Muscular dystrophy
Other Medical Conditions
There are many other significant medical conditions that can run in the family as well, so you should do your best to be aware of instances of them in your own family. These include…
- Alzheimer’s disease/dementia
- Blood clots
- High cholesterol
- Pregnancy losses
It’s important to remember that having a family member who has developed a certain medical condition does not necessarily mean that you will develop that same medical condition. Similarly, you do not have to have a family history of a particular medical condition in order to develop that condition yourself. Genetics is just one factor in the development of many medical conditions, but it remains a significant factor nonetheless.