GI Issues Linked to Family Health History


According to the National Library of Medicine, a first-degree family history of esophageal and gastric cancer is significantly associated with the development of upper gastrointestinal cancers.

This suggests the risk for upper gastrointestinal cancers increases among individuals with family history of cancer, making appropriate screening strategies in relatives of patients important for preventing and controlling disease.

Knowing and acting on your family health history is an essential way to protect your health. Before your next visit, collect your family health history and then share it with your doctor. Your doctor can use it to understand a more complete picture of your health and your risk factors for disease. Together, you can work on ways to reduce that risk.

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WHAT DOES A FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY MEAN? 

You and your family members share genes, so your family health history is a record of the diseases and health conditions that exist within your family tree.

There may also be shared behaviors that affect your medical history, such as exercise habits and what you like to eat. In addition, you may also live in the same area and come into contact with similar environmental aspects. Your family health history includes all of these factors, all of which can affect your health.


WHY IS KNOWING MY FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY SO IMPORTANT TO MY GI HEALTH?

Your family health history can help your doctor map out the big picture of your overall health.

Most families have stories about health, like when grandma or grandpa got sick or suffered from a particular disease. Some families share similar health problems, like heart disease, cancer, or diabetes. If someone in your family has a chronic disease, it means they have a long-lasting health problem that could potentially be genetic.

If more than one family member has the same health problem, it’s likely you share the same risk. Before you visit the doctor, it's good to know your family's health story. Ask your family about their health problems, even if they don't know everything.

To get a better understanding, make a list of who in your family had what health issues. This list can help the doctor choose tests for you. Tests can help you catch problems early and knowing which diseases you are at risk for can help your doctor understand which tests to run and when.

Even if you can't remember all the details, share what you know. Your doctor will use any information they have to help keep you healthy.

So, talk to your family, make a list, and take it with you to the doctor.

COMMON HEALTH ISSUES THAT RUN IN THE FAMILY

Common health conditions that you may find within your family’s health history can include:

  • Asthma
  • Birth defects (Spina bifida or cleft lip, for example) 
  • Cancer (including breast, ovarian, prostate, bowel/colon, or melanoma skin cancer) 
  • Diabetes
  • Genetic conditions, such as, cystic fibrosis or hemophilia 
  • Heart disease or sudden heart attack
  • High blood pressure (hypertension) or high cholesterol
  • Mental illness
  • Osteoporosis 
  • Multiple pregnancy losses
  • Stillbirths 
  • Stroke

RISK FACTORS 

Although every family is different, there are some factors that can point to your family being at a higher risk of developing certain conditions.

Having several closely related individuals with the same or related health conditions can pose a risk factor, including conditions such as bowel, colon, and endometrial (uterine) cancers, diabetes, heart disease, or high blood pressure.

Health conditions that develop at an early age can also be a risk factor, especially with conditions such as bowel/colon cancer before age 55, prostate cancer or heart disease before 60, or the sudden death of a family member who appeared healthy at the time of death.

Common hereditary gastrointestinal, liver, and pancreatic diseases and conditions can include:

Gastrointestinal conditions:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD): Irritable bowel disease includes both ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the large intestine) and Crohn’s disease (inflammation of the tail end of the small intestine).
  • Celiac disease: Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder triggered by eating gluten (found in wheat, rye, and barley). The immune response to gluten damages the small intestine. Approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide are affected. If your parent, sibling, or child has celiac disease, you have a 1 in 10 risk of developing this condition.
  • Hereditary hemochromatosis: Hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb an excessive amount of dietary iron and affects the liver, heart, pancreas, and endocrine system. It is the most common genetic disorder among Caucasians, affecting 1 in 200 in people of Celtic or Nordic ancestry.
  • Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer): Lynch syndrome causes an increased risk for cancers of the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder ducts, upper urinary tract, brain, and skin, and, for women, an increased risk of cancer of the ovaries and lining of the uterus. Colon polyps occur at an earlier age for those with Lynch syndrome than the general population.
  • Familial adenomatous polyposis: Patients develop hundreds or even thousands of polyps in their colon starting at a young age (as early as their teens) with cancer developing at an average age of 39.
  • Juvenile polyposis syndrome: In patients with Juvenile polyposis syndrome, gastrointestinal polyps can develop by age 20. Most of these polyps are noncancerous, but patients have an increased risk of digestive tract cancers development.
  • Peutz-Jerghers syndrome: People with this condition develop noncancerous polyps in the stomach and intestines. These patients also have a greater risk of developing cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, cervix, ovary, and breast.

Liver conditions:

  • Autoimmune hepatitis: This form of hepatitis is a chronic condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the liver, resulting in inflammation. If not treated, autoimmune hepatitis can eventually lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
  • Polycystic liver disease: This rare disease causes patients’ livers to develop many cysts in their livers. Liver function may be unaffected if there are fewer or smaller cysts.

Pancreas conditions:

  • Pancreatitis: Pancreatitis is the inflammation of the pancreas, a gland located behind the stomach and next to the first part of the small intestine. Pancreatic enzymes mix with bile from the liver to digest food. Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening and cause severe complications. The most common cause of pancreatitis is gallstones but can also be caused by genetic abnormalities of the pancreas.

WHEN TO SEE A DOCTOR

Regular screenings for gastrointestinal conditions are highly recommended by our board-certified gastroenterologists. Through our variety of GI procedures, we can detect gastrointestinal issues early on before they become more dire. Our GI doctors can also refer you to a specialist to help determine if your condition is an inherited disease.

Visit any of our four Charleston GI locations today to get started - no referral necessary! If you are outside of the Charleston area, speak with your primary care doctor for further assistance. 

DIAGNOSTIC TESTS

To take a closer look at your gastrointestinal condition, our doctors may use a variety of tests including the following:

  • Colonoscopy
  • Endoscopy 
  • Blood test
  • Stool test

PREVENTION

While you can’t change your genes, you can change unhealthy behaviors, increase activity, and improve your eating habits to positively affect your family health history. If you have a family health history of disease, you may have the most to gain from lifestyle changes and screening tests.

In many cases, building healthy habits can reduce your risk for diseases that run in your family. Screening tests, such as blood sugar testing, mammograms, and colorectal cancer screening, can help detect early signs of disease. Finding signs of disease early can often mean better health in the long run.

If you are aware of a history of gastrointestinal illness in your family, there are some things you can do to reduce your risk of developing the same problems. 

  • First, eat a healthy diet and get plenty of exercise. This will help keep your immune system strong and reduce inflammation throughout your body. 
  • Secondly, avoid smoking, as this can increase your risk of developing Crohn’s disease and other gut issues. 
  • Lastly, if you have concerns about your risk of gastrointestinal illness, talk to your doctor or make an appointment with a gastroenterologist near you. They can help you make lifestyle changes or recommend medication to reduce your risk.

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HOW CAN I COLLECT MY FAMILY HEALTH HISTORY? 

You may know a little about your family history or a lot, and that is okay! To get a better understanding of your family’s medical history, utilize time during family gatherings to talk to family members about health history. Gather information about your parents, grandparents, siblings, half-siblings, children, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. If you can, look at death certificates and family medical records. 

When collecting this information, include data on major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death, and ethnic background. Keep this information updated as much as possible and share what you’ve learned with your family and with your doctor. 

Who should I collect information from?

You will only need to gather health information from those who are biologically related to you. 

Try to get as much information as you can from:

  • Your parents, siblings, and your children.
  • Your grandparents, grandchildren, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and half-siblings.
  • Your cousins.

What information should I collect? 

You should try to collect information as much information as possible about:

  • Any major health conditions in your family. 
  • Age a person was diagnosed with a condition, and, if they have since died, their age at death. 
  • Ethnic or cultural background, as some ethnic groups are at greater risk of developing certain conditions.
  • General lifestyle information, including smoking habits and any work done near or with harmful substances, like asbestos. 

In addition, include information about any close relatives who have had children together. For example, if first cousins have had children together.

If it is difficult to get information from your family:

It may be easier said than done to contact all family members, as it is easy to lose touch with some relatives over the years or have relatives who do not want to disclose health information. Approach these questions sensitively and respect a family member’s wish to not discuss health matters.

If you are having a difficult time getting information from some relatives, sit down with one or two relatives you trust who may be able to give you more information on those relatives with health issues. If contacting any of your relatives turns out to be difficult, keep a record of your health to help out future generations of your family.

If you are adopted:

Gathering information about your family health history can be difficult if you are adopted and do not have contact with your biological family members. If finding information about your biological family is a challenge, simply start your family’s health history with yourself for the sake of your children and grandchildren.

Update your family health history regularly:

After you’ve collected your family health history, keep it in a safe space where you can easily access it.

By doing this, you can give your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren the ability to better understand their family health history and reduce their risk of disease.

If you feel that this information would be helpful to your extended family now, plan a day where you sit down and share your findings with your family, provide copies of the information, and help them become aware of any conditions that run in your family.


STATISTICS

Statistically, there are a few different types of gastrointestinal illnesses that have been shown to be hereditary. 

CROHN'S DISEASE & ULCERATIVE COLITIS

Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two of the most common types of hereditary GI conditions. In 20 percent of those who have it, have a close relative who also has Crohn’s or ulcerative colitis. If your parent or grandparent has either of these conditions, your risk of developing them is higher than those who do not.

IRRITABLE BOWEL

Between 25 to 45 million individuals in America suffer from Irritable Bowel Syndrome.

While the cause is unknown, some of the risk factors include being a woman, age, and food sensitivities, as well as family history playing a role. The condition seems to run in families, as some studies have shown that genes may play a role in the development of IBS.

CELIAC DISEASE

For celiac disease, there is a 1 in 10 chance of getting celiac disease if a close family member has it.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by eating gluten. Gluten is what gives bread its chewy texture and makes it elastic. Some symptoms may include bloating, abdominal pain, joint pain, constipation, and diarrhea. Consult with your physician if you think you should be tested or schedule an appointment with a gastroenterologist near you.


UNDERSTANDING THE GENETIC LANDSCAPE OF GASTROINTESTINAL DISORDERS 

Our genetics play a pivotal role in shaping our health and susceptibility to gastrointestinal conditions.

GI disorders such as inflammatory bowel disease, celiac disease, and colorectal cancer have been found to have a strong genetic link. Specific genetic markers have been identified that are associated with an increased risk of these conditions. This research has helped healthcare professionals identify who is predisposed to these GI disorders and allow them to treat patients proactively to lower their risks.

THE ROLE OF GENETIC TESTING IN GASTROENTEROLOGY 

Genetic testing allows gastroenterologists to detect GI disorders early and predict outcomes.

As advanced techniques become more readily available, providers can analyze a patient’s genes and address potential risk factors. These developments in genetic testing help clinicians put together personalized treatment plans based on patients’ genetic risk factors, leading to improved patient outcomes. 

TAILORED TREATMENTS: A NEW FRONTIER 

One of the biggest advantages of the developments in genetic testing is the ability to tailor treatment regimens for each patient’s needs.

This allows providers to step away from the “one-size-fits-all” treatment strategy and take a deeper dive into their patients’ genetic profile. 

By better understanding the genetic influence on a patient’s health, doctors can prescribe treatments that have less adverse effects and are even more effective than previous treatment plans. A personalized patient approach is a step toward precision medicine in the world of gastroenterology.

Lastly, our gastroenterologists at Charleston GI are here to help you navigate your family history of gastrointestinal illness and help you get to the bottom of your condition. No referral is needed, so schedule your appointment at one of our four convenient locations today!


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To learn more about treatment for GI tract issues in Charleston, SC, get in touch today! Charleston Gastroenterology is committed to a higher standard of caring – and we provide a range of medical treatments to help you feel your best.

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