We all know that the bond between a mother and child is incredibly powerful. From the moment the baby begins to develop in the womb, a deep attachment is formed. And as we age, our mothers pass down to us their wisdom and advice. But, the connection between a mother and child is more than just emotional or psychological; it’s actually hardwired into our DNA. The genes we inherit from our parents can shape everything from our personality to our physical traits and our health.
The fact is we can inherit certain health conditions from our mother and father that can impact us throughout our lifespan. Understanding our genetic risk for certain diseases is important because knowledge is power, and the more we know, the better we can be at making proactive choices to care for our health!
5 Conditions with a Hereditary Link and What You Can Do Now To Reduce Your Risk
If you have ever been to the doctor and they’ve asked you, “Do you have a family history of heart disease?” then you probably already know your family’s health history can have an impact on your own health. While genes are not everything, they can play a role in increasing your risk for developing certain diseases. Here are some common diseases with a hereditary link and tips you can implement now to reduce your risk.
- Breast and Ovarian Cancer: Breast cancer is the most common cancer in American women, aside from skin cancers. Between 5% to 10% of all breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary, often caused by an inherited mutation in the genes known as BRCA1 or BRCA2. When these genes are altered (or mutated), it can lead to abnormal cell growth, which eventually could cause cancer. Often, women with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation are more likely to develop breast cancer at a younger age. Through advances in technology, there are now tests available to screen for the BRCA gene mutation. If detected, your provider can help you develop a proactive plan to reduce your risk of developing breast cancer which could include a mastectomy (removal of your breast tissue), oophorectomy (removal of your ovaries), and/or regular mammograms to screen for cancer and increase the chances of catching it early. Similarly, ovarian cancer which affects about 1 in 78 women is known to be hereditary and can be screened for through various tests (such as BRCA 1/2, ROMA, and HE4) and treated if necessary.
- Heart Disease: Heart disease remains the leading cause of death among women in the U.S. There are several heart conditions like coronary artery disease and high cholesterol that can be passed down among families. While the genetic component may be out of your control, there are several ways to lower your risk such as following a heart-healthy diet that is low in unhealthy fats and full of vegetables, fruits, whole-grains, and lean proteins. Also, avoiding smoking, staying active, and reducing stress are all important actions you can take to reduce your likelihood of developing heart disease. Learn more about how to manage your cardiovascular risk post-menopause.
- Osteoporosis: Overall, osteoporosis is more prevalent in women than in men, affecting 8 million women in the U.S. What’s more, approximately one in two women over the age of 50 will break a bone because of osteoporosis. If your mother, or a close relative, suffered a fracture linked to osteoporosis, your risk for experiencing a fracture is greater. No matter what your age, it is important to protect your bone health. Maintaining a healthy diet rich in calcium and vitamin D and engaging in weight-bearing exercises (i.e., hiking, jogging, dancing) and strength training has been shown to help build your bones. Women over the age of 65 or who have a higher-risk factor for osteoporosis are also encouraged to receive a bone-density scan (also known as a DEXA scan) which can detect osteoporosis before a fracture occurs.
- Type 2 Diabetes: About 15 million women in the U.S. are living with diabetes. In women, diabetes can create problems during pregnancy as well as increase your risk for heart disease, in addition to other complications. While researchers do not know the exact cause of diabetes, they believe there is a strong genetic link with type 2 diabetes specifically. Diet, exercise, and avoiding smoking have all been shown to help reduce the risk for type 2 diabetes. Specifically, low-carb and low-glycemic index diets have proven helpful in preventing type 2 diabetes by helping to manage blood sugar (also known as glucose) levels.
- Alzheimer’s Disease: More than 5 million women are living with Alzheimer’s Disease, which disproportionally impacts more women than men. Research has shown that those with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease. While the medical community is actively studying ways to prevent Alzheimer’s, they agree that (you guessed it), physical activity and diet may help support brain health and can lower the risk of other diseases, like heart disease and diabetes, which have been linked to Alzheimer’s.
So, Genes or Lifestyle…What Matters Most?
Well, the answer isn’t exactly black and white, but rather that it is worth considering both. With the increase in genetic testing over the past decade, scientists have made it easier for us to understand what’s going on inside our bodies and how it can affect our health. However, if your genes seem to be “stacked against you,” don’t worry, there is still hope. While we cannot rewrite our DNA, we can lower our risks associated with common diseases through proper diet and lifestyle changes. And with the power of technology and diagnostics, we can better detect abnormalities and changes in our cells at an early stage before they lead to serious disease.