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Are You Turning Into Your Mom?

How to cut your odds of breast cancer, osteoporosis, depression, and immune diseases -- even if your mom had them.

Autoimmune Diseases continued...

“The fantasy we all have is that you would be able to somehow have an immune-modulating drug, something that would keep the body from attacking itself,” Chung says. “Theoretically, that’s the goal, but it’s balanced against the fact that such medications are usually not benign and have significant side effects.”

But being aware of your added risk does allow you to be vigilant and begin treating these conditions in their earliest stages -- which can make an enormous difference in terms of how fast and how far the disease progresses.

“For example, the big problem with rheumatoid arthritis is that it’s literally destroying the joints. Once they’re destroyed, it’s hard to go back and fix them,” Chung says. “If you get the inflammation under control at a very early stage, it can help to preserve the bone structure and function for as long as possible. If you know you’re at risk, you can watch for early signs and symptoms.”

The same is true of more manageable autoimmune disorders like thyroid disease.

“This is a very subtle disorder, but it’s easily screened and easily treated,” Chung says. “You can feel run down, depressed, and be gaining weight, and not realize it’s your thyroid. But if you know that your mother and your grandmother were hypothyroid, you can recognize these symptoms and be ‘miraculously cured’ with thyroid medication, rather than being miserable for months or years without knowing what’s wrong.”

Depression

As with autoimmune disease, depression is a gender gap condition: It’s more likely that your mother had it than your father. If she did, does that mean you’re more likely to experience clinical depression?

Possibly, but it’s hard to quantify, Chung says. “With mental illness, the more severe the disorder, the more likely it is that there is an underlying genetic basis for it. Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, developed at a younger age, is much more likely to be inherited. There are specific single genes, for example, that can significantly increase a person’s risk of developing schizophrenia.”

But with more common, less severe psychiatric conditions, like clinical depression, the underlying factors are more complicated. “Genetics are probably involved, but depression also has to do with factors like how you grew up, the environment around you, the people involved in your life in your formative years,” Chung says. “There’s a family contribution to depression, but it’s not just genes, but also what people share in their families in general.”

If you’ve seen your mother, aunt, or sister go through depression, it’s a clue to be vigilant about your own mental health issues, just as with physical conditions like breast cancer and osteoporosis. “If you do start having mild depression or becoming more debilitated, there’s no reason to go through it alone,” Chung says. “We have very good treatments that can help you get on with your life.”

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