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Your Mother's Eyes and Your Father's High Cholesterol

For Dena, every yearly checkup ignited the same frustration. Despite watching her diet and exercising regularly, her cholesterol levels remained high. Meanwhile, her husband, who can’t remember the last time he ate a bowl of oatmeal, has never experienced elevated cholesterol levels. As far as she’s concerned, he’s the picture of good health. As for Dena, she was feeling the effects of a history of high cholesterol in her family.

Doctors have long acknowledged the impact family history has in measuring a patient’s risk of acquiring a certain disease. The Centers for Disease Control says that if you have a family health history of a chronic disease like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, or osteoporosis, you are more likely to get that disease yourself. But does that predisposition mean we face an inevitable death sentence? And what can we do to lessen our chances of disease? By gaining a better understanding of how genetics affects our health, knowing more about our family history, and exploring ways to combat a history of poor health, we can increase our chances of beating the odds of chronic disease.

How Do Genetic Conditions and Predispositions Affect Health?

Having a family history of a disease is just an indicator that you may have inherited a genetic variant that might increase your risk. It is important to note two main points. First, not all relatives will inherit a genetic variant that is in their family. Second, not all people who inherit a genetic variant are absolutely going to have the associated disease. Knowing you might be at increased risk can help you make better health decisions that might allow you to avoid the disease or get it diagnosed early enough that some bad outcomes can be avoided.

Truthfully, some diseases don’t have a good test for early diagnosis. But tracking the patterns of health in your family history can allow you to lower risks with simple changes in behavior. This could include medication options, depending on the condition. “For instance, knowing your family history could help determine the most effective drugs to lower cholesterol, to reduce the risk of heart attack, consider the use of blood thinners to reduce the risk of stroke, or using Tamoxifen to reduce risk of breast cancer,” said Lisa A. Cannon-Albright, PhD, chief of the Division of Genetic Epidemiology and the Division of Cardiovascular Genetics. She believes the number of these drug therapies will only increase over time.

What Degree of Family Health Awareness is Helpful to Know?

Utah has a uniquely large database from which clinicians from all over the world gather information. Because of this resource, researchers can look at the full range of first-, second-, and third-degree relatives, such as cousins. “For some diseases, even having one affected third-degree relative is associated with increased risk,” Cannon-Albright said. She added that typically the closer the affected relative, the higher the risk.

Can We Improve or Combat a Family History of Poor Health?

The important thing to remember is that your health isn’t destined to always meet the same fate as that of your relatives. You can use knowledge of your family history to find ways to reduce your risk. “The first level of using risk prediction to improve health care is to classify people according to risk,” Cannon-Albright said. She added that the people in the high-risk group could be treated differently, including which screenings they receive, when they start, and how often they repeat the screenings. Similarly, individuals at higher risk can change behavior to reduce risk.

It’s true that we can’t outsmart a genetic disposition to disease. But many times it’s not just the genes our relatives have shared with us — it’s their habits. “People with a family history of disease may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests,” the CDC says. “In many cases, adopting a healthier lifestyle can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family.” Three proven strategies include not smoking, getting regular exercise, and maintaining healthy eating habits. It’s also important to be current on screening tests. Tests such as mammograms, cholesterol and blood pressure screenings, and colorectal cancer screenings can detect disease at an early stage. Even if your family history doesn’t show patterns of disease, adopting healthy habits can prevent the onset of disease and improve your chances of recovering should early signs of a disease be detected.

We owe a lot to our relatives. We can adopt their tenacity, resourcefulness, and sense of adventure, but we don’t need to carry on their history of disease. With improved genetic technologies that offer more targeted care options and incorporating healthy habits and preventative measures, we can make our history of disease a thing of the past.