Forest Gump famously said, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.” You can extend this sentiment to your family too. In addition to your personality quirks or how you hold your fork or cross your legs, some families are more prone to certain diseases. If a diagnosis occurs in your family, you could be at greater risk of becoming ill.
The link between genetics and common men’s health conditions
These are some of the most common conditions for men in Canada, and family history can factor into all of them.
- Type 2 Diabetes
- Prostate Cancer
- Erectile Dysfunction
- Low Testosterone
- Colon Cancer
- Heart Disease
Not all diagnoses are the result of genetics. In fact, many men’s health conditions, like osteoporosis or erectile dysfunction, can be prevented through healthier lifestyle choices, like 150 minutes of mild to moderate exercise a week and eating more fruits and veggies. However, if you notice, for example, patterns in specific types of cancer or ages when the diagnoses occur with family members, genetics could be the cause.
Arming yourself with the knowledge that you may be at higher risk for a health condition is an opportunity to start building good habits now, including getting regular medical screenings to detect any potential issues early on. If you’re not sure what to get checked for and when, the Men’s Health Checklist makes it easy to stay up to date on screenings, exams, and vaccines.
Whether you have a family doctor or rely on walk-in clinics, it’s always the right time to share your family’s medical history with your healthcare provider.
How to find your family’s medical history
The easiest way to understand your family’s medical history is to ask them. If they’re still alive, ask your grandparents, parents, and siblings for a history of any physical or mental health conditions.
Certain life situations may prevent you from getting all of the info you need. When asking a relative about their medical history, keep the conversation casual and broad before getting personal—medical questions can bring up unwelcome emotions for many people.
Do your best to frame the discussion around your need to care for yourself and your family. This way, your relative will know you aren’t being nosy; you’re being responsible.
If you need medical information for a relative who has already died and no one living can fill in the information gaps for you, try the following sources:
- Death certificates
- Funeral home records
These types of documents may provide sufficient details to complete the picture.
If you were adopted or separated from your family, options are still available to understand your biological family and genetics. Contact your adoption agency to see what records about your birth parents they can share.
Talk to your doctor about genetic testing or look into online ancestry kits. Both options can provide information to help you and your doctor understand your risk of developing a hereditary illness.
What to do if you are diagnosed
Sharing your medical history with your family is a personal and private decision. For some people, it can be pretty stressful. Whether you’re diagnosed with cancer or diabetes, experiencing mental health struggles or any other medical condition, it is entirely up to you who you share this news with and when.
Keep in mind that your diagnosis could impact their health. Follow your doctor’s advice, and if there is a chance your diagnosis is genetic, share your news with your family at a pace you’re comfortable with. People like partners, siblings, or parents can help by being with you as you share or by sharing the news on your behalf.
Genetics and parenting
Understanding your genetic history can play an important role if you decide to expand your family. If you and your partner know there is a pattern for certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, or addictions in your family, you will be better equipped to be proactive with your children’s health. Make sure your pediatrician knows what medical conditions run in your family or if new diagnoses occur.
If you adopted your child or used a surrogate, sperm or egg donor, be proactive in requesting the medical information of the birth parent or donor. Knowing what health risks your child may be genetically predisposed to will help your doctor provide the best care possible.
What’s in your control?
You can’t control your genetics, but you can make small changes to improve unhealthy lifestyle habits. By making healthy changes now, you can significantly reduce your risk of developing diseases such as heart disease, prostate and colon cancers, and depression.
Start small by adding one of these healthy lifestyle changes to your routine:
- Add more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein to your plate
- Get 20 minutes of exercise every day (even if it’s just parking farther away or taking the stairs)
- Slowly cut back on smoking if you’re a smoker
- Drink two less alcoholic drinks this week than you did last week
- Develop a solid sleep routine so you can get 7-8 hours of sleep
- Reduce stress by making time for self-care
Studies continually show that making any of those changes to your lifestyle reduces your chances of being diagnosed with multiple forms of cancer, osteoporosis, heart disease, or type 2 diabetes. You will also reduce your risk of experiencing depression, erectile dysfunction, or low testosterone.
There’s no time like the present to take control of your health by having conversations with your family about their health history. Small changes can add up to significant differences. Lead by example and chart your family’s course towards long and healthy lives.
Does asking your family about their health history seem like a big ask? Join the conversation below.