importance of family history
of us know that we can thank our parents' genes for much of what
we are. DNA—the road map of human life—determines how
tall we grow, the color of our hair (not to mention whether it
will fall out) and even how long we're likely to live.
But inheritance isn't so much a dead-end street as it is
a road with many forks. We don't have to accept our fate
blindly. In fact, if we read our genealogy
carefully—learning about our genetic weaknesses—we can see trouble
coming and choose a route that heads it off at the pass.
A prime example in my practice is prostate cancer. In the last year, studies
at Johns Hopkins University have shown that a man whose father has had prostate
cancer is at 2-1/2 times the risk for developing the disease himself. And if
both his father and his grandfather had it, the risk jumps to 9 times. Put
another way, if your father or grandfather had prostate cancer before age 55,
your risk of getting it is 50 percent.
good about knowing you're likely to get prostate cancer? Simple.
It's far better than not knowing you do have it.
Prostate cancer, like most malignancies, grows fairly slowly, and it
can be cured entirely if detected early. With an annual digital rectal
exam after 40 and regular blood tests after 50, most prostate cancers
can be detected before it's too late.
Likewise, though many forms of diabetes run in families, a diabetic
dad is no death sentence. Recent research has shown that lifestyle
changes such as a low-fat diet and regular exercise can help both head
off diabetes and also control it without insulin.
Of the other diseases with known or suspected familial links, most
of them are either preventable, curable (with early detection) or both.
It pays to know your genetic road map and take a few simple steps to
avoid road hazards.
Susceptibility to most colo-rectal cancers, for example, is thought
to be passed on genetically, but a healthful lifestyle and early detection
can help disarm this killer. A low-fat, high-fiber diet has been shown
in numerous studies to reduce the risk, and regular colonoscopy (visual
examination of the colon with a flexible instrument) can catch polyps
(precancerous growths) before they become cancers.
The importance of diet and exercise in protecting you from inheritable
circulatory disorders such as heart disease, high blood pressure, high
cholesterol and stroke should be no secret. And I shouldn't even have
to mention smoking.
But you may not have known that vulnerability to some forms of skin
cancer can be passed from generation to generation. If you have a parent
or grandparent who's had skin cancer, be extra diligent with your sunscreen
and exam your skin once a month for discoloration, roughness or persistent
I applaud the enthusiasm for genealogy that we've seen over the last
decade or two. But we need to know more about our roots than just birthdays,
migrations and notable achievements.
Talk to your parents, grandparents and other relatives about what ailed
your ancestors. Press them to be specific. (Prostate problems, for
example, are different from prostate cancer.) And check death certificates
for causes. Over the years, medicine has become much more precise and
terminology has changed, but your doctor can help you sort out what's
Keep a record of what you discover about your predecessor's health,
so that medical history becomes a part of your family tree. Genetic
heritage is a vital part of the legacy your forebears left you. Be
sure you make the most of it.
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