There are plenty of reasons to know your family history. It can help you to understand where you come from, encourage better relationships with your current family members, and enable you to find a personal connection with history. One immediately practical reason, though, is because understanding more about your ancestors can help you to have advance warning about health risks hidden in your genetic code.
Many common diseases have a close link with genetics, including some surprising ones. Here are just a few of them:
Diabetes is a disease characterized by abnormally high levels of blood glucose (or sugar in the blood) that goes unregulated by normal body processes. In people with diabetes, the body is unable to make or use insulin, a hormone which is needed to metabolize sugars and other foods. Diabetes can lead to many problematic symptoms, including kidney failure, problems with vision, weight fluctuations, and major fatigue. Uncontrolled, diabetes can even lead to amputation and death.
Both type 1 diabetes (which affects people from childhood, and is unpreventable) and type 2 (also known as adult-onset diabetes) are linked to genetics. However, in type 2 diabetes, lifestyle factors can prevent the onset of the disease.
About 600,000 people die of heart disease every day in the US. It’s one of the most common diseases, and if you have a family member with heart disease, your risk goes up significantly. Since heart disease is closely linked to diet and exercise as well, it’s often hard to tell how much of your risk is inherited through your genes, and how much of it is caused by learned behavior that we’ve adopted from our parents. In any case, you can greatly reduce your risk of heart disease with a heart-healthy diet, regular cardiovascular exercise, and by avoiding harmful behaviors like smoking.
Many people are surprised to learn how closely certain cancers are linked to genetics. The type of cancer makes a big difference. Cancer is a disease caused by the growth of abnormal cells in the body. It can be caused by many things, depending on which part of the body it originates in. Not every type of cancer is genetic, although genetics can still be a factor in how your body is able to counter cancer and precancerous growths.
A few forms of cancer that are most closely linked to genetics include:
- Breast cancer
- Ovarian cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Prostate cancer
If you have family members who have had cancer, let your doctor know so that they can advise you about screenings and preventive measures.
While many people know about the genetic factors contributing to the above diseases, most people are surprised to learn that something like addiction is genetic. The truth is that addiction is a mental disorder, and many mental disorders (such as depression, schizophrenia, etc.) are closely tied to genetics.
Much like heart disease, it can be difficult to separate which parts of addiction are determined by genes, and which are just a matter of learned behavior and habits that we’ve picked up from our parents. However, even in situations where children were raised by someone other than their birth parents, studies have shown that children with one or more parent affected by addiction are more likely to suffer from it themselves. Modern evidence-based rehabs and counseling can both help cure and prevent addiction, but it’s important to know about your risk factors so that you can be vigilant about your own tendencies.
Forewarned is Forearmed
It’s important to know that just because you have a genetic risk for a certain disease doesn’t mean that you will inevitably suffer from it at some point down the road (especially in the case of the diseases listed above.) There are many things that you can do in your personal habits in order to mitigate your risk. In addition, regular screenings and open communication with your personal physician can help you catch early warning signs and take measures to prevent the progression of disease.