It is no news that your mum has played a huge role in shaping your life and who you are, and that you have much to thank her for – but when it comes to your health, don’t be too quick to blame it on your mother's genes.
While you may be genetically predisposed to certain health conditions, the chief responsibility for your health still falls on you. There are risk factors that are within your control, which you can manage in order to take ownership of your health.
The risk of you developing heart disease increases significantly if anyone in your immediate family, including your mother, has had a heart attack or has suffered chest pains due to blocked arteries. However, there are things you can do to keep your heart healthy.
- Maintain a healthy weight – Being overweight can lead to conditions that increase your chances of heart disease and stroke, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
- Maintain healthy cholesterol and blood pressure values – High blood pressure and high cholesterol can damage your heart and blood vessels. Manage them by taking medication and following a healthy lifestyle plan prescribed by your doctor.
- Get regular health screening – Without testing for your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, you might not know your risk of heart disease. Regular screening can tell you whether you need to take action, and can also identify serious but often treatable conditions.
- Eat a heart-healthy diet – A heart-healthy diet includes limiting the intake of sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and making sure to eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
- Don’t smoke – Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease. Dr Leslie Tay, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital, warns that if you smoke regularly, you are almost guaranteeing yourself heart disease in your lifetime. When it comes to preventing heart disease, no amount of smoking is safe. The more you smoke, the greater your risk. The good news is, it is never too late to quit smoking – your risk of heart disease begins to lower after you stop.
- Exercise – Being sedentary may be twice as deadly as being obese, cautions Dr Tay. A small amount of regular exercise can significantly reduce your risk of premature death. It can also help you control your weight and regulate blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, lowering your risk of developing hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Regardless of age, you should aim to identify your risks and take control of them. Doing so will significantly reduce your risk of developing heart and vascular disease.
(Reviewed by Dr Leslie Tay, cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital)
If your mother has had thinning bones or if you’ve inherited her smaller body frame, you are more likely to get osteoporosis. Fortunately for you, there are many things that you can do from a young age to prevent it from happening.
- Consume sufficient calcium and vitamin D – Just consuming calcium alone is not enough. Vitamin D is necessary as it helps your body absorb calcium.
- Avoid smoking – Your body is less able to absorb calcium if you smoke. There are also studies showing that tobacco use leads to decreased bone density.
- Do weight-building exercises – Weight-building exercises increase your bone mass, improving your bone health. Take your pick from a wide range of activities like hiking, dancing, tennis and other racquet sports.
If many of your relatives have osteoporosis, you might also want to consider getting bone scans from a younger age.
You’re up to 50% more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis if your mother had it. This condition occurs when the immune system attacks the body, leading to inflammation of the joint lining and cartilage. It can cause a painful swelling that may eventually result in bone erosion and joint deformity.
Here are lifestyle measures you can take to lower your risk of developing it.
- Do not smoke – Cigarette smoking increases your risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, particularly if you are already genetically prone to the disease. Smoking also appears to be associated with a greater severity of the disease.
- Maintain a healthy weight – People who are overweight or obese appear to be at a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, especially women diagnosed with the disease before 56 years old. Maintain a healthy weight by being conscious of your diet and exercising regularly.
- Reduce your intake of red meat and caffeine – This condition is more often found in people who consume large amounts of red meat and caffeine. On the contrary, there may be benefits from a high intake of vitamin C, an antioxidant that may help to fight molecules which trigger rheumatoid inflammation.
(Reviewed by Dr Jeffrey Chew, orthopaedic surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospitals)
If your mother has been diagnosed with breast cancer, your risk of developing the disease is almost doubled. If you have inherited a harmful BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutation, your risk of developing breast cancer increases to between 40 – 85%, roughly 3 – 7 times greater than that of a woman without the mutation.
However, there are other risk factors that are within your control. Some things you can do to manage your risk factors are as follows
- Drink moderately or don’t drink at all – For women, 1 drink a day is the limit. Drinking 2 or more drinks a day regularly will double your risk of breast cancer.
- Plan for a family early – If starting a family has always been part of your life plan, you may want to consider having a baby before the age of 30. Studies have suggested that having your first baby before the age of 30 may reduce your risk of breast cancer. Prolonged breastfeeding for more than 6 months will also confer a protection effect.
- Maintain a healthy weight – Being overweight puts you at risk of a host of diseases, all of which can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. Maintain a healthy weight by eating well and having an active lifestyle.
- Do not smoke – Smoking increases the risk of many diseases and is linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.
It is a good idea for you to go for regular screening as well, and you may want to get screened at a younger age if you have a strong family history of breast cancer.
(Reviewed by Dr Tan Yah Yuen, breast surgeon at Mount Elizabeth Hospital)
Your risk of suffering from migraines increases by 50% if your mother is afflicted by the condition. While there is little that you can do to prevent it from happening, you are able to manage the condition by making some changes to your lifestyle.
It would probably be wise for you to be more mindful of consuming certain foods – alcohol, chocolate, cheese, coffee and citrus fruits are common dietary triggers of migraines. Where possible, try to avoid places with bright lights or strong smells. Drink plenty of water, get ample rest each day, and manage the stress you face in your life. Find out your triggers, and avoid them.
Alzheimer’s disease and dementia
If your mother suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, your risk of developing the disease increases by about 30 – 50%. There is also a 3 – 5% increase in your chances of developing dementia. Fortunately, there are things you can do to fight those odds.
- Maintain healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels – Several conditions known to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol also increase the risk of developing Alzheimer's.
- Maintain a healthy weight – This will reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease – conditions that have been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia.
- Do not smoke – By smoking you are at a greater risk of developing dementia along with a host of other diseases.
- Exercise – Regular physical exercise may benefit brain cells by increasing blood and oxygen flow in the brain. Its known benefits for cardiovascular health may also help to reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Current evidence suggests that heart-healthy eating may also help protect the brain. Heart-healthy eating includes limiting the intake of sugar and saturated fats and making sure to eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and wholegrains.
Combined, these can reduce your risk of developing dementia by roughly 20%.
(Reviewed by Dr Lee Kim En, neurologist at Mount Elizabeth Hospital)
Just because you are genetically predisposed to certain conditions doesn’t mean that you are destined to develop them. For most of these conditions, the causes are a complex interplay of genetics and other factors.
There are risk factors that are within your control, which you can manage in order to be the healthiest version of yourself. While you may be disadvantaged from the genetic standpoint, you are able to take ownership or your life and your health by doing your part to stay healthy.
Article reviewed by Dr Leslie Tay, Dr Jeffrey Chew, Dr Tan Yah Yuen and Dr Lee Kim En
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3. Collaborative Group on Hormonal Factors in Breast Cancer. Familial breast cancer: collaborative reanalysis of individual data from 52 epidemiological studies including 58,209 women with breast cancer and 101,986 women without the disease. Lancet. 358: 1389-99, 2001.