They say ignorance is bliss, but that certainly isn’t true when it comes to your health. A huge 3.5 million Brits are
affected by genetic and rare diseases, with millions more at increased risk of serious illness.
However, a new study by medtech firm ANCON Medical has found that 29% of us have no idea whether or not we have a family history of cancer, 21% know nothing about our parents’ medical history – and 57% know nothing about the medical history of our grandparents.
So why is that knowlege so important? According to the British Heart Foundation, a family history of heart disease is a key risk factor when it comes to developing the UK’s biggest killer.
Also, your genes increase your chances of certain cancers. Inheriting the BRCA gene mutation led Angelina Jolie to undergo a double mastectomy because the faulty gene gave her an 87% chance of developing breast cancer which killed her mother and grandmother.
GP and medical columnist Dr Rosemary Leonard MBE says: “There are many gene mutations which increase your risk of diseases such as breast and prostate cancers.
“As always, early diagnosis and treatment is best as it allows you to make lifestyle changes which can lower your risk. That’s why it is always good to know about the health of your family – not just your parents but your grandparents, aunts and uncles as well.”
Londoner Rory Johnston, 23, had no clue about his family’s medical history until a chance conversation with his father revealed a ticking time bomb for his own health.
He says: “In the past, whenever a doctor asked, ‘Any family history of this sort of thing’ I would always reply, semi-confidently, ‘Not that I’m aware of’.
“Then, a couple years ago, I moved house and registered with a local GP and was given a routine medical check-up. The doctor took my resting heart rate.
“The average is around 80 beats per minute – mine was nearly 110. My blood pressure was also far higher than expected for a healthy-ish man in his 20s.
“I didn’t give it a second thought until I visited my parents a little while later. At some point, my dad casually mentioned that my grandfather had had a heart attack at 65 – just like his father and grandfather before him.
“Dad also revealed that both my grandparents on his side had suffered strokes and there was a long history of what sounded like heart disease among other family members.
“I realised that this probably didn’t bode too well, so went back to my GP.
“Coupled with my family history, my results put me at high risk of a future heart attack. My doctor explained it was something that could easily affect me in the next five to 10 years.
“He recommended taking more exercise, changing my diet and scheduling more regular check-ups – all of which I now do.”
If you do discover a medical issue among your relatives, don’t panic.
“Apart from some rare genetic disorders, a family history does not guarantee you will be affected,” says Rosemary. “Have a chat with your GP. They will be able to give you more information.”
The five questions you need to ask
What do you know about our family’s health?
A broad question such as this is a good way to get the conversation going. It’s especially important given that your parents and their parents have the most relevant medical history to your future.
Are there any illnesses that keep cropping up among our relatives?
The most relevant conditions include stroke, kidney disease, diabetes and cancer. All of these have been shown to have genetic links and so having a relative who has had the condition could raise your own risk. Knowing you might be at a higher risk of high blood pressure or cholesterol is also important.
Has anyone in our family ever had a heart attack?
If you’re only going to ask one thing, make it this. Heart disease and heart attacks kill nearly 170,000 people each year. A general rule would be that the more generations removed, the less likely their health history will affect you.
When were our relatives diagnosed?
Timing is everything for certain diseases. Having some cancers at an early age can flag up a genetic condition. If a relative died, ask how old they were when they passed.
How is your health at the moment?
Don’t just have the usual, “how are you?”, “I’m fine” exchange with parents, brothers and sisters – go deeper. Comparing your health to your siblings will give an idea of what you should look out for. You may have inherited the same risk factors – although this isn’t always the case.