Get to know your family health tree

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Coeliac disease

What is it?
Coeliac disease is not a food allergy, as people often imagine, but an autoimmune disease that results in an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye.

Not everyone with this intolerance knows that they have it, because although you’re born with the condition, it often needs a trigger (such as a tummy bug) to set it off. After that, eating gluten will always cause the kind of problems that can be easily misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) – a survey of Coeliac UK members found that 60 per cent of them were initially misdiagnosed this way. Symptoms may vary, but they include diarrhoea, muscle cramps and bloating.

What’s the genetic link?
Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK explains: ‘The average risk of having coeliac disease is one in 100, but if any first-degree relative had it (that includes grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as well as your parents and siblings), you stand a one in ten chance of having it, too. And if there are other autoimmune disorders in your family (such as Type 1 diabetes or thyroid disease), lifelong tummy problems or anaemia, there could be undiagnosed coeliac disease in your family.’

What should you do?
‘If you suspect you have coeliac disease (usually because of frequent tummy upsets), it’s important to be tested and formally diagnosed because then you’ll get some gluten-free foods on prescription. The test will only work if you’re including gluten in your diet at the time of testing, but, once diagnosed, you should avoid these foods for life,’ says Sarah. For more information on coeliac disease, visit www.coeliac.org.uk.

Read: top 10 gluten-free recipes

Type 2 diabetes

What is it?
A condition that causes glucose to build up in the blood, which can lead to a host of health problems affecting the heart, eyes, nerves and kidneys. Over 2.5 million people in the UK have Type 2 diabetes – plus there are more than 850,000 who have it but don’t know, because symptoms (such as increased thirst, frequent thrush, and going to the loo more often) can manifest slowly.

What’s the genetic link?
The main genetic risk comes from your direct family – if one of your parents has Type 2 diabetes, your risk is 15 per cent. If both of them have it, there’s a 75 per cent chance you will, too.

What should you do?
Lifestyle factors account for a lot when it comes to this condition, so even if your risk of diabetes is high, it needn’t be your fate, says Libby Dowling, a clinical advisor at Diabetes UK. ‘If you know Type 2 diabetes runs in your family, and you’re over 40 years of age and overweight, be sure to get your blood glucose tested. Glucose intolerance is a sign of pre-diabetes that can be managed with exercise and a sensible diet,’ she says.

The following advice will also help to keep you diabetes-free:
■ Keep to a healthy weight – having a waist measurement over 31.5in is an extra risk factor if you’re a woman.
■ Take regular exercise.
■ Stick to a healthy diet that’s low in fat, sugar and salt.

Read: type 2 diabetes: are you at risk?

Dementia

What is it?
Dementia is the loss of brain function that is usually connected to old age, but it’s not a natural part of the ageing process. ‘The most common causes of dementia are Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive disease that affects 465,000 people in the UK, and vascular dementia, which is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes,’ says Dr Anne Corbett of the Alzheimer’s Society.

What’s the genetic link?
‘In 99 per cent of cases there isn’t a genetic link, but certain genes do make us more susceptible – and the greatest risk is if a close relative developed Alzheimer’s before the age of 60. This form of the disease is extremely rare (around one per cent of cases), but if it’s in your close family, your GP can refer you to a geneticist for testing,’ Dr Corbett says.

What should you do?
■ Take steps to reduce your risk of high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity – which have all been linked to dementia.
■ Stick to a healthy lifestyle. Not smoking and keeping active will lower your risk.
■ Stay mentally active – learn a new language, or do puzzles and crosswords
■ Any activity that’s both physical and social at the same time – such as dance classes – is also thought to be helpful.

Read: the truth about dementia

Osteoporosis

What is it?
The fragile bone disease that affects three million people in the UK. Half of all women over the age of 50 will break a bone, mainly due to poor bone health.

What is the genetic link?
If one parent suffered a broken hip, you may be particularly susceptible – but many other factors can affect your risk of getting fragile, porous bones, says Sarah Leyland, senior osteoporosis nurse at the National Osteoporosis Society. ‘Some things you can do little about, such as past health conditions, but there are many steps you can take to build stronger bones.’

What can you do?
■ Take weight-bearing exercise – such as walking or weight lifting – to strengthen bones and the muscles that protect them.
■ Don’t smoke, or drink more than three units of alcohol a day.
■ Be sure to get enough vitamin D (from exposure to sunlight) and to eat calcium- rich foods (yoghurt, nuts and bony fish). Take calcium supplements if your doctor recommends them.

Read: are you on the path to osteoporosis?

Cancer

What is it?
A range of illnesses, each caused by body cells growing out of control.

What's the genetic risk
All cancers are caused by faulty genes, but only a small proportion (two to three per cent) are inherited, according Dr Julie Sharp of Cancer Research UK. ‘You may have a strong family history if more than two relatives on the same side of your family have had the same cancer, or cancers linked to the same gene fault, especially if these cancers developed at a younger age,’ she says.

What should you do?
The usual health guidelines will help to protect you, even if cancer is in your family – so don’t smoke, cut back on alcohol, keep to the right weight for your height, stick to a healthy diet, take plenty of exercise, and stay safe in the sun. Even if you have the skin cancer gene CDKN2A, your risk is five times lower in the UK than in Australia where there’s more sunshine – a sign that lifestyle does make a difference. Talk to your GP or visit www.cancerhelp.org.uk.

Read: our magazine doctors' advice on cancer

Cardiovascular disease

What is it?
This is an umbrella term for conditions affecting the heart and circulation, such as heart disease and high blood pressure.

What’s the genetic risk?
‘You’re considered to have a family history of cardiovascular disease if your brother or father were diagnosed with heart disease under the age of 55, or your mother or sister were diagnosed under the age of 65,’ says Judy O’Sullivan, senior cardiac nurse at the British Heart Foundation. ‘But family history is just one factor and the more factors you have the greater your risk.’

What should you do?
‘Reduce all the risk factors you can,’ Judy advises. ‘Give up smoking, which doubles your risk of a heart attack, enjoy regular physical activity, and eat a balanced diet that is rich in fruit and vegetables, and low in salt and unsaturated fat,’ Judy recommends.

Read: heart disease - are you at risk?

Read: 10 natural ways to lower blood pressure

 

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