Knowing your health heritage can help you avoid or detect conditions that may run in your family. We suggest taking a close look at your family tree and start with these 5 health questions.
Expectant parents hope their child will inherit their most positive qualities and traits and not the less attractive ones. When it comes to health, there is a potentially life-saving element to identifying risks despite the fact that there are a limited number of conditions where family history has an impact.
In the case of certain cancers, for instance, knowing you are genetically predisposed can prompt life-saving screening earlier and more frequently.
While knowing is better than not knowing, it’s a very personal choice for each individual. However, if you can ask your parents, these are some of the important health questions.
Question 1: Has a close family member had breast or ovarian cancer?
Genes are passed from parents to children, so it’s possible to inherit gene mutations that increase the risk of developing cancer. These germline mutations, as they are known, account for 5 to 10% of all breast cancer cases.
This is also true for ovarian and colorectal cancer. A family history of breast or ovarian cancer (from your father or mother’s side) could be indicative of a hereditary condition, particularly if a close relative was diagnosed under the age of 50.
The bright side: The majority of breast cancers are acquired not inherited. Sometimes its for no clear reason and sometimes through exposure to radiation, environmental toxins or viruses. You can decrease your risk by eating fresh, whole unprocessed foods. In addition, exercising, limiting alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking will also help.
Question 2: Has anyone in your family had heart disease, high blood pressure or a stroke?
Experts at Easydna says heart disease is often a family matter and there exists certain features of family history that indicate genetic heart disorder. These include: sudden cardiac death, heart failure at a young age, palpitations or abnormal rhythm at a young age, fainting or seizures, and more than one relative with the same type of heart disease.
Family history is a risk factor for hypertension since it tends to run in families, so it’s essential to speak to your doctor about getting you blood pressure and cholesterol checked regularly. The higher your numbers, the greater your risk of heart attack or stroke.
The bright side: While these conditions can be inherited, a poor diet, smoking and lack of exercise greatly increases your risk. Heart and Stroke Foundation South Africa (HSFSA) reports that 80% of heart disease and stroke can be prevented.
Question 3: What about depression?
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in the US reports that brain function that underlies anxiety and depression is inherited.
Another large study by the institute of Psychiatry at King’s College, London, found a clear link between genetics and recurrent depression.
These findings are supported by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which reports that family, twin and adoption studies have shown that for schizophrenia, autism, bi-polar disorder, major depression and other mental illnesses, the transmission of risk is due to heredity.
The experts agree that you should never neglect your mental health and acknowledging the potential risks means you can create a good self-care regimen.
The bright side: Genetics alone doesn’t determine whether you will suffer from a mental illness. The there Es (Experience, Environment and Engagement) are hugely instrumental in dialling down anxiety and depression.
Question 4: Is obesity in my genes?
Probably not. The increasing rates of obesity, particularly among young children and adolescents in South Africa, is primarily as a result of unhealthy food choices. These food choices include having food high in bad fats sugar and salt. Other reasons for obesity are inactivity and increased consumption of fast food.
The bright side: Parents can encourage their children to choose healthy foods by demonstrating these behaviours themselves. There is evidence to show that parents and immediate family members are the most powerful agents of socialisation. So the chances of young people making better life choices increase if parents and caregivers display these healthy behaviours themselves.
Question 5: If mom or dad is diabetic, will I be too?
Diabetes South Africa says, the closer your relationship to someone with Type 2 diabetes the higher your personal risk.
It is also true that more than 90% of people who have Type 1 (insulin-dependent) diabetes have no familial link.
It’s an autoimmune disease where your body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. This means the person will need numerous daily insulin injections for life.
Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, has a strong genetic predisposition, with additional risk factors such as obesity, lack of physical activity and poor diet.
The bright side: Three-and-a-half million South Africans have diabetes and there are many more who are undiagnosed, as many people do not experience, or do not recognize the symptoms of diabetes. The primary treatment of Type 2 diabetes is to lose weight (if the person in overweight), has a regular routine of physical activity and eats a healthy, balanced diet. However, there is no magic pill or cure for diabetes, so self-care is vital.