At one time or another, most of us have thought, I’m turning into my mother! Maybe it’s when you hear yourself say something you swore you never would to your children. Or maybe it’s an uncanny mannerism you’ve developed. You might even be tempted to blame mom (or dad) for your health problems. But your odds of developing a disease go beyond family history. In fact, unless your lifestyle habits mirror your parents’, your genes may not matter as much as you might think.
“Environmental factors, including diet, exercise and smoking, play an equally important role in the development of a particular disease. Sometimes they’re even more powerful than your genes,” explains Katarzyna Budzynska, M.D., M.Sc., family medicine physician at Henry Ford Health.
Indeed, scientists are learning that disease comes from a complicated mix of genes and environment. Think of it like your genes are the gun and lifestyle factors are the trigger. With that in mind, Dr. Budzynska highlights 6 conditions that do have a genetic link — and the lifestyle changes you can make to protect yourself:
- Heart disease: While it’s true your risk of heart disease goes up if you have an immediate family member who has had blocked arteries, research suggests that more than 80 percent of heart disease—the kind that causes heart attacks—is preventable.
What you can do: Eat a clean diet, featuring lots of heart-healthy foods (fruits, vegetables and fatty fish), exercise regularly and find healthy ways to manage stress.
- Osteoporosis: Smaller-framed women of Asian and Caucasian descent are at greater risk of osteoporosis. So, if you inherited a petite frame from your mother, it’s wise to pay close attention to your bones.
What you can do: Ask your doctor for a bone density test to stay on top of any bone loss. Then, eat a calcium-rich and vitamin D-rich diet and exercise regularly. Studies show that weight bearing exercise (think: walking, jogging and dancing) as well as strength and resistance training (think: lifting weights and doing push-ups) can help prevent bone loss.
- Breast cancer: Your chance of developing breast cancer isn’t necessarily higher if your mother had the disease. Your risk only increases if you have two or more immediate family members who were diagnosed, or you’ve tested positive for specific genetic mutations.
What you can do: If you’re concerned about your risk, ask your doctor to refer you to a genetic counselor. Depending on your results, your doctor may want to initiate screening exams (including mammography and magnetic resonance imaging, also known as MRI) earlier or on a more frequent basis. You should also try to limit your alcohol intake to one glass a day and watch your weight.
- Alzheimer’s disease: If one of your parents suffered from Alzheimer’s disease (AD), your risk of developing the disease goes up 30 to 50 percent. Early onset AD, in particular, often has strong family ties.
What you can do: Maintain a healthy weight, exercise regularly and practice brain-building activities that combine both mind and movement. Dancing, playing tennis and doing Tai Chi or yoga may help because they require you to think while you move. Studies suggest the combination is especially helpful in boosting brain power.
- Obesity: Studies are mixed on whether obesity is inherited. More likely, your lifestyle habits reflect the dreaded number on the scale. Trouble is, lifestyle habits are often learned from your parents. Did your mom encourage you to clean your plate of everything on it when you were growing up? Did she offer sweets when you were feeling blue? Such patterns can set the stage for a lifelong battle with your weight.
What you can do: Load up on fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and steer clear of processed and fried foods, sodas and sweets. Then, get moving.
- Autoimmune disease: Autoimmune diseases, like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and certain thyroid disorders, tend to run in families.
What you can do: Watch for early signs and symptoms, and address them with your doctor as soon as they happen. If you get the condition under control at an early stage, you’ll have a better chance of stalling its progression.
Make sure you know both of your parent’s health histories, and learn about your other relatives, too. Then share the information with your doctor. You may want to chat with a genetic counselor about disease screenings or incorporate simple preventive measures (like watching your salt intake if high blood pressure is a threat) in your routine, too.
Most importantly, remember that no matter what conditions your mom (or dad) may have had, there’s always an opportunity to lower your risk of developing disease.