1. Menopause Genetics
Menopause genetics, as it turns out, are a fairly reliable gauge for the onset of menopause. In fact, one study found that the age of menopause is 85 percent determined by genes. Most women enter perimenopause somewhere between 39 and 51; from there it takes approximately five years before their periods stop altogether (marking the official start of menopause). As a general rule, a woman’s periods will stop at around the same age as her mother’s did. However, certain lifestyle factors, like smoking and living at a high altitude, can bring menopause on ahead of schedule.
What your mother’s menopausal age won’t tell you: Whether your menopausal symptoms will be mild or extreme. Many factors, like weight, diet, how much you exercise, and your stress level, play into whether you’ll be plagued by hot flashes, mood swings, and other symptoms — or sail through menopause with minimal misery.
2. Risk of Breast Cancer
There’s a reason doctors always ask you whether you have a first-degree relative with breast cancer. Between 5 and 10 percent of breast cancer cases are inherited, and having a mother with breast cancer is even more significant, doubling your breast cancer risk. Then there are the genes BRCA1 or BRCA2, which can raise your breast cancer risk as high as 60 percent. But these statistics only carry you so far; 70 percent of all women with breast cancer have no close relatives with the disease. And keep in mind that there are many environmental and lifestyle influences on cancer risk, from chemical exposure to whether and when you had children to smoking and alcohol consumption.
What your mother’s breast cancer history won’t tell you: Whether or not you’ll get breast cancer, and how serious it will be if you do. Less than one in ten cases of breast cancer have a hereditary component. And it’s the stage at which cancer is detected that plays the biggest role in whether it’s curable.
If your mother has been diagnosed with osteoporosis, is fracture-prone, or even is simply thin and small-boned, you need to pay attention to your bone health. Bone structure is greatly influenced by heredity; in one study, researchers measured the bone structure of three generations of women from the same families and found significant correlations in size, thickness, and density of their bones.
What your mother’s experience with osteoporosis won’t tell you: How strong your bones actually are. A laundry list of environmental factors, from lifestyle habits to health conditions, has a profound effect on bone health. Smoking, high alcohol consumption and long-term use of certain medications weaken bones. Diabetes and the eating disorders anorexia and bulimia rob bones of key nutrients. Getting plenty of weight-bearing exercise, keeping your weight down, and getting plenty of calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D build bone strength even later in life. So just knowing your genetic risk isn’t enough; only a bone density test can reveal your bone strength.
4. Joint Pain
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA), which is an autoimmune disease, has a strong genetic component. If your mother or another first-degree relative has RA, your risk of developing it yourself goes up by 50 percent. Osteoarthritis, the more common type of arthritis, also runs in families, although people with no family history also develop the condition. In osteoarthritis, the protective cartilage at the ends of bones deteriorates, exposing them to friction when you move.
What your mother’s diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis won’t tell you: The rest of the story. Carrying excess weight puts pressure on your joints, so if your mother was overweight and you are not (or vice versa), it’s important to take that difference into account. Trauma and repetitive stress from work or other activities are common causes of arthritis independent of heredity. Smoking, eating a lot of red meat, and high caffeine intake make you more vulnerable to osteoarthritis, while exercising and stretching regularly can help keep it at bay.
If your mother was prone to migraine headaches, there’s a strong likelihood you’ll inherit the same problem, since70 to 80 percent of the risk is genetic, according to research by neurologist Kate Henry, MD, of New York University, published in *Nature Genetics*. The genetic link is strongest for migraine with aura, in which you see colored or flashing lights or spots just before or during a migraine headache. Migraines are more common in women than in men to begin with, affecting 17percent of women, but just 8 percent of men.
What your mother’s migraine history won’t tell you: How frequently you’ll get migraines, or how bad they’ll be. Migraine frequency, intensity, and duration are affected by a host of factors, including hormonal fluctuations, stress, weight and exercise, and diet and nutrition. Specific migraine triggers are very personal; some people get migraines when they eat chocolate, nuts, cheese, or other foods, while for others it’s bright light, strong perfume, and other physical factors that set them off.
Remember the Health Power motto: Knowledge + Action = Power!