Like Mother, Like Daughter?

Just because your family health tree is ripe with lots of scary diseases doesn’t mean your future will be filled with doctor’s appointments. Here’s how to take control of your medical destiny.

Like Mother, Like Daughter?
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Autoimmune disorders
In general, women are more prone to autoimmune disorders, which Kalanick defines as “your immune system growing overzealous and attacking things it shouldn’t.” In such thyroid disorders as Hashimoto’s disease (which my mother has, as do I), the bow-tie-shaped endocrine gland is on the defense; the same theory applies to MS, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), lupus and some cases of diabetes. While numbers are hard to come by, autoimmune disorders are now known to have a genetic component. Douglas Goodin, medical director of the University of California, San Francisco Multiple Sclerosis Center, says that having one parent with MS elevates my risk from 0.1 percent to 1 percent—significant, but not the mon strous figure I’d been dreading. Other auto immune diseases carry similar genetic links. Kalanick’s first recommendation for autoimmune patients—or those like me looking to thwart genetics— is to go gluten-free. “Gluten often causes the body to flood with inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, sending an already wound up immune system into hyperdrive, attacking tissue.” (A 2010 study in the American Journal of Medicine confirmed that individuals with one autoimmune disorder are more likely to have another, such as celiac disease, which is characterized by an inability to digest gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.) Experts agree it’s also a smart move to follow your gluten-free goodies with a vitamin D chaser. Low levels of the nutrient have been found in those with depression, osteoporosis, cancer and heart disease, and the sunshine vitamin also plays a role in autoimmune disorders like RA and diabetes. Goodin prescribes supplements to MS patients but suspects a significant culprit may be deficiency early in life (possibly in utero). Still, D is a vital immune system regulator, so get tested and supplement enough to reach a reading of 80 ng/mL. Five minutes of sun exposure, sans sunblock, twice a day should also help you reach your daily quota; UV rays enable skin cells to manufacture vitamin D. However, know your skin type and avoid getting sunburned. Energetically speaking, Kalanick urges women like me to treat ourselves a little more gently, especially when it comes to warding off disease. “Autoimmune disorders are a form of self-attack,” she says, “yet women are constantly ‘attacking’ themselves for not being able to do it all—have a great job, great body, great relationship, great kids.” Stop punishing yourself for being human, and you might give your body a leg up on healing. 

If you’ve ever fallen beneath the black cloud of depression, you know all too well the pain and sense of helplessness and hopelessness that rains down. Genetic vulnerability extends to mental health disorders; an American Journal of Psychiatry study found that having depression in the family doubles your risk from the 7 percent general population prevalence. But according to mind-body pioneer Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., executive director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Boston and an assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, you can structure your life to give you an advantage over the disease. That means building up social support wherever you can. Join a book club, volunteer at church and get out there and be with people, as social isolation is linked with depression. Domar credits exercise with a profound ability to treat depression; research shows it works as well as, if not better than, antidepressant medication. Whether it’s preventive is not known, but “if you know you have a family history, I’d say, ‘Lace up your sneakers,’ ” says Domar. Complement your workouts with a Mediterranean diet packed with produce, whole grains and good-for-you fats: It’s been shown to reduce the likelihood of depression, along with Alzheimer’s disease and cognitive impairment later in life. Your choice of profession may color your risk, as well. Domar says careers that offer a solid sense of control or consistently motivate you are wise options. (Professions that render you unable to predict day-to-day events would be ill-advised.) And make an effort to cultivate a sense of empathy for yourself. “One of the reasons people get depressed is they feel they’re always falling short of their personal goals,” Domar notes. Setting realistic expectations, and then achieving them, leaves you feeling empowered—and empowerment can trump hopelessness.