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Fighting My Father’s Fate

Can I avoid my family history of hereditary disease?

Compiling a Family Medical History continued...

Knowing Your Genetic Risks Is Better Than Imagining Them

Next step: Discuss your family’s medical history with your doctor. Of course, men are notoriously reluctant to get medical help because -- deep down -- we just know we’ll get bad news.

But experts say we’re being silly. “Talking to a doctor or counselor can make you feel better,” says Wicklund. “It can give you perspective on what your actual risks are.” That’s preferable to fretting about them pointlessly for decades. Remember that the object of taking a hard look at your family history isn’t to make you depressed. It’s to help you avoid getting sick with a hereditary disease. 

Gilbert uses me as an example. “Given your family history, it’s highly likely that there are some genetic factors predisposing you to disease,” says Gilbert. “But since you know that, your doctor can be more careful. He can keep a watchful eye on your weight and blood pressure and cholesterol levels.”

Studies show that targeted interventions can radically affect hereditary disease risk. For instance, a 2006 New England Journal of Medicine study found that a certain gene can raise the risk of diabetes by 80%.  However, the researchers also found that people who had the gene but lost some weight and exercised for half an hour five times a week could drop that increased risk down to 15%. 

With other inherited conditions in which lifestyle management may not be so effective, you can still use a family history -- or the results of genetic tests -- in a constructive way.

For instance, Zabel cites a genetic test for hereditary colon cancer. If you’ve inherited multiple copies of the gene, your risk of developing colon cancer at some point in your life is 80%. That’s not good news. But you can use this information to further improve your odds. You can get more regular exams to check for polyps and get those polyps removed long before they have a chance to become cancerous. With aggressive medical care, your actual risk of getting colon cancer may be much, much lower than 80%, Zabel says.

Lifestyle Changes to Lower the Risks of Hereditary Disease

The fact that so many of these hereditary disease risks can be countered by changes to your lifestyle is also good news. 

But we’ve all read the advice countless times before -- eat better, exercise more, don’t smoke. As a medical writer, I admit to having written them countless times. They’re easy to write, but I know they aren’t easy to obey. While the specter of an early death has kept me up countless nights, it’s a less reliable incentive to good behavior than you’d expect. Perhaps it’s just too horrible. It’s like being chased by a bear. The adrenaline can keep you going for a while, but eventually you collapse (on the couch, in front of the television).

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