Health and your genes
Our genes have a huge impact on our health – so paying attention to your mother’s and father’s wellness can tell you a lot about what may be in store for you. Take a look at these hereditary health traits, many of which may surprise you.
Acne is the most common skin disorder – up to 80 percent of us will suffer from it at some point in our lives. And it turns out we can often thank our parents: The development of painful rashlike – cystic – pimples has both environmental and genetic components. If you have adult acne and haven’t had success treating it with over-the-counter regimens and lifestyle changes, see a dermatologist. Prescription treatments have come a long way since you were in high school.
Tooth issues do run in families, according to the experts at Delta Dental. Some of that may be due to diet or bad habits like skipping flossing, but there’s also a strong genetic influence. Mutations or differences in a gene known as DEFB1 are linked to a greater risk of cavities as an adult.
If one of your parents has a history of unexplained fainting or losing consciousness during times of extreme emotion or after exercise, take note: Those are all symptoms of a heart-rhythm disorder known as long QT syndrome. The syndrome is sometimes caused by a genetic mutation that could then be passed down to you. Other potential causes include certain medications and electrolyte imbalances. Before you head over to the doctor’s office to uncover your genetic makeup, it’s important to find out what your doctor isn’t telling you about genetic testing.
People with more than 50 to 100 moles are at an increased risk for melanoma, and the “risk is even higher when there is a family history of atypical moles or melanoma,” says Lisa Anthony, MD, an assistant professor of dermatology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and a dermatologist at Mount Sinai Hospital. An atypical mole is an unusual-looking mole that has some of the characteristics of melanoma, such as dark colour or irregular borders, but is not actually cancerous. “‘Mole-y’ people are also at risk for other, more common skin cancers such as basal cell skin cancer,” says Dr. Anthony.
Chronic heartburn or reflux may be about more than eating too much spicy food – it could be a result of hereditary allergies. “Eosinophilic esophagitis is an allergy condition that can run in families,” says Princess Ogbogu, MD. The condition is a mouthful to pronounce, but it basically means that people have chronic inflammation in the oesophagus that may feel like – or even cause – acid reflux. Barrett’s oesophagus, a condition linked to reflux and oesophageal cancer, may also be genetic: Studies have pinpointed three different genetic mutations related to the disease.
Allergies do run in families. “Generally, food and environmental allergies are genetic, although there are definitely external environmental factors that can make allergies or asthma worse, such as viral infection, tobacco smoke, living with allergens such as cats, dogs, rodents, or cockroaches,” says Dr. Ogbogu. One allergy that doesn’t typically run in families? Medication allergies, she says. “People often worry that if one family member has an allergy to a medication, others will have it. But this isn’t necessarily the case.” Still, she says, “it is important to provide your family history so your provider can determine if you should have additional testing for allergies.”
A traumatic childhood
While you can’t “inherit” trauma itself, there is a cycle of trauma that can repeat in families, says psychiatrist Samar McCutcheon, MD. “Our goal is to reduce the likelihood that an abused child will go on to become an abuser. There are a significant number of mental health conditions that occur more often in patients who experience trauma in their childhood. Breaking the cycle of trauma could indirectly reduce the next generation’s risk of developing some of these mental health conditions.”
Do certain materials, soaps or scents make your mum’s or dad’s skin break out, flake or itch? “A tendency toward allergies or hypersensitivities can run in families – this is referred to as atopy,” says Dr. Anthony. “Atopic dermatitis, or eczema, is itchy, red and flaky skin rash caused by an immune hypersensitivity. Keratosis pilaris – rough, bumpy skin commonly found on the backs of arms – can be related to eczema and is also typically inherited.” Eczema can crop up anywhere on the body. Prescription medications can help in severe cases.
These tend to run in families, although experts aren’t sure whether it’s genetics or environmental factors at play. People with learning disabilities are usually of average intelligence or above, but they may have issues with reading, concentration, or language caused by the way their brains process information. That said, with proper treatment and strategies, many people with learning disabilities can flourish in school and their careers. Parents of adopted children can use genetic testing to discover whether their children are genetically predisposed to develop a learning disability.
An aching head
Seventy to 80 percent of people with migraines have a relative who gets these awful headaches, too, according to the National Headache Foundation. “One of the main risk factors for migraines is a family history of migraines,” Todd Sontag, DO, a family medicine specialist with Orlando Health Physician Associates, told Reader’s Digest.
All you have to do is look at some parents and children to know that body shape and size is genetic. Some research suggests that certain body types are more likely to be inherited than others. Belly fat, for instance: An apple-shaped body may be more dependent on genes than being pear-shaped or straight up and down. A larger middle is something to take note of, since an apple shape is linked to heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
If your mum or dad struggled with gingivitis or periodontal disease, it’s important that you pay particular attention to your own mouth, experts say. Up to one-third of people are genetically predisposed to developing gum disease, which, if left untreated, can lead to tooth loss. You know what to do: Floss, brush twice a day and see the dentist twice a year.
The genes for the ability to “see” the colours red and green are located on the X chromosome. Women have two X’s, which means that if they get one mutated colour gene, they can still distinguish colours thanks to the other good copy. Men, on the other hand, have only one X. So when they get a colour blindness gene, they’re stuck with it. That’s why men are more than 16 times more likely than women to be colour-blind.
Decades of studies done on twins and family members have led researchers to conclude that a significant part of a person’s weight could be due to genetics. That’s because your weight is based not only on lifestyle choices such as diet and physical activity, but also on other genetic traits such as appetite, a natural tendency to store fat (or not), and other metabolic factors, according to the CDC. Familial obesity is rarely due to just one gene; it probably comes down to interactions between your environment and a variety of genetic factors. No matter what your genes or body size may be, you can improve health with healthy behaviours such as moving regularly, eating nutritious food and reducing stress.
High blood sugar
Type 2 diabetes isn’t just caused by a poor diet or lack of exercise – genes handed down by your parents and grandparents are a major factor, too. But don’t despair: “A person can trump a lot of the inherited risk with healthy behaviours,” Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD and specialist in preventive medicine told WebMD.
The research is clear: Depression does run in families. If a parent or sibling of yours has depression, you have between an 11 and 18 percent risk of developing depression, too – which is significantly higher than the average risk of 1 to 7 percent, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Studies suggest several different genetic roots, including a mutation in a gene known as MTHFR – it’s been linked to other health problems, too. If depression runs in your family, talk to your doctor.
There’s a persistent myth that eating disorders such as binge eating, night-eating syndrome, anorexia and bulimia are a matter of choice or lifestyle. Decades of medical research, however, demonstrate that eating disorders are at least partly rooted in genetics. A study in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found that a flawed appetite-control gene is linked to people with obesity and binge-eating disorder, the most common eating disorder among both men and women. If you worry that your behaviour with food may be disordered, speak to your doctor.
Severe mood swings
Bipolar disorder causes extreme swings in mood and behaviour, from manic highs to severely depressed lows. It usually shows up in the late teens, but symptoms can emerge at any age. The genetic links aren’t well understood, but your risk is greater if a parent or sibling has it. “Most mental health diagnoses are believed to be a result of some combination of genes and environment, but having the genetic predisposition does not always mean that someone will experience that particular mental health condition,” says Samar McCutcheon, MD and psychiatrist. “A thorough health assessment should always involve a family mental health history. This can alert the clinician to particular conditions to monitor for more closely.”
Severe morning sickness, also known as hyperemesis gravidarum, can be inherited. Although it’s rare, recurrent miscarriages can sometimes be caused by a chromosome issue passed down from parents to their daughters. If you’re looking to start a family, it’s a good idea to ask your mum for some more details about how her pregnancies went, and report any news back to your health-care provider.
Drinking too much
Studies suggest that roughly half your risk for alcoholism comes from a complex interaction of genes that you inherited from your parents. Children of parents with alcoholism are about four times more likely than others to become addicted. But genes aren’t destiny, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism stresses. More than 50 percent of kids of people with alcohol dependence don’t develop the disease. One way to help prevent developing alcoholism is to drink moderately (no more than one drink a day for women or two a day for men). If you’re worried about your drinking, talk to your doctor or another health-care provider about it. They’re trained to screen patients for addiction and advise on local resources that can help.
Certain genes may be at fault for some cases of osteoporosis and fractures, research suggests. If one of your parents has low bone density, take note. “There is strong evidence for an increased risk of osteoporosis if your mother had it,” Todd Sontag, DO, a family medicine specialist told Reader’s Digest. You’re also at increased risk if either parent has broken a hip, he says. Adequate vitamin D and calcium intake, along with regular weight-bearing exercises such as walking or strength training, is key to building up your bones.
If your mum gave birth to a set of fraternal twins, that means she likely has a gene that told her body to release more than one egg during ovulation, the New York Times reports, increasing the chances that she’ll have fraternal twins. It also means that her daughters have a 50-50 chance of having that gene, too. Having the gene doesn’t affect a man’s likelihood of siring twins, but he could pass the trait to a daughter. (Identical twins are not hereditary – rather, it’s a random event when one fertilised egg splits into two.)
Heart disease is a major cause of death around the world. While there is a significant family link – researchers have identified more than 50 genetic markers for heart disease – lifestyle can change your health destiny. One large study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that people with a genetic predisposition for heart disease were able to slash their risk by 50 percent with a healthy lifestyle that included eating a nutritious diet, avoiding smoking and being physically active.
The average age of menopause is 51, although many women hit that hormonal stage earlier, around age 45. Going through “the change” before the age of 40, however, is considered early. Illnesses such as epilepsy have been linked to early menopause, as well as certain cancer treatments and lifestyle issues such as obesity and smoking. But genes play a role, too. If your mother went through menopause early, you’re more likely than the general population to do it, too.
Chronically red cheeks
The skin condition rosacea – in which a person’s nose or cheeks get red with blushing skin, swelling, or tiny red veins or pimples – is often mistaken for acne; a flare-up can be triggered by stress, heat or alcohol. Recent research in twins suggests that about half of your risk for developing rosacea may be genetic, according to the National Rosacea Society, although no one has identified the genes responsible. Some ethnic groups also have higher rates of rosacea, including people of Scottish, Scandinavian, and eastern European descent.
Most people who get colon cancer do not have a family history of the disease. However, people with a parent or a sibling who has the cancer are at increased risk, especially if the relative was diagnosed before age 45, according to the American Cancer Society. The cause of these “family” cancers could be genes, environment or a combination of both.
Blame Mum, Dad, or both if you find yourself wheezing. About three-fifths of asthma cases are thought to be hereditary. People with one parent who has the condition are up to six times more likely than the rest of the population to develop the condition themselves.
People with a parent or sibling who has coeliac disease – a serious autoimmune condition in which eating gluten damages the intestines – are at increased risk of developing the condition themselves. Anyone with a family history who notices adult symptoms of the disorder, such as weight loss, osteoporosis, fatigue, depression or migraines, should talk to their doctor. A simple blood test can usually rule out coeliac.
“Family history of melanoma increases one’s risk for developing melanoma,” says Dr. Anthony of this deadly skin cancer. “Hereditary melanoma can be related to known gene mutations, but this is usually the exception rather than the norm. Other genetic risk factors are fair skin, red hair and tendency to sunburn.” Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common skin cancers, however, and are generally related to the amount of UV exposure you get rather than to genetics. “It is important to tell your dermatologist about any family history of atypical moles or skin cancer, including melanoma. I recommend a full body skin exam by a board-certified dermatologist every three to 12 months, monthly self-skin exams at home, and good sun-protection habits,” says Dr. Anthony.
“Studies show that postpartum depression is genetically linked,” psychologist Deborah Serani, PsyD, award-winning author of Living with Depression: Why Biology and Biography Matter Along the Path to Hope and Healing, told Reader’s Digest. “Your risk for PPD increases if your mother, or another family member – sister, aunt – has experienced it.” So if you’re pregnant or planning to be, be sure to ask your mother if she experienced postpartum blues or depression – and discuss a “yes” answer with your obstetrician or mental-health-care provider. Ten percent of new mums develop postpartum depression, while 80 percent have some level of post-baby blues. Regular stress-relief activities such as deep breathing or meditation, physical activity and adequate sleep can help reduce your risk.
Alzheimer’s disease is an example of a disorder with something called “multifactorial inheritance” or “polygenic inheritance.” What that means is that this form of dementia is caused by multiple gene mutations in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors.
Sometimes, high cholesterol comes from a person’s diet and exercise regimen. Other times, it’s more about genetics than lifestyle. So if high cholesterol runs in your family – despite fairly healthful habits – you should get checked for familial hypercholesterolemia (FH), a disorder that impairs people’s ability to metabolise cholesterol. FH boosts your risk of heart disease and stroke, so be sure to quiz your parents (and siblings) about their cholesterol numbers. “FH is the most common genetic cause of early heart disease, but with early treatment, an individual’s risk can be reduced by 80 percent,” Daniel Rader, MD, told Women’s Health. “Unfortunately, FH is highly undiagnosed, with 90 percent of people unaware they have the condition.”
A toned physique
Like weight and an apple-shape middle, muscularity is also highly hereditary, Women’s Health reports. People who have certain genes need less physical activity than others to build muscle strength and tone, a study in the International Journal of Obesity found. Regardless of your genetic makeup, exercise is a great way to take control of your body and health.
It’s well known that breast cancer can run in families. But “individuals with a close family history of breast cancer – especially premenopausal breast cancer [diagnosed before age 50] – often overestimate their personal risk of developing cancer,” says J. Jaime Alberty-Oller, MD, a breast surgical oncologist. So don’t panic if your mother (or father – men can get breast cancer, too, although it’s rare) had the disease. But do talk to your health-care provider, who will take a full family history and take other information into account to help you determine your own personal risk.
Sign up here to get Reader’s Digest’s favourite stories straight to your inbox!