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Family Tree and Hereditary Diseases

We are naturally curious to know about our ancestors. And we all love to dig into the old photo albums of our parents, their parents and their parent’s parents. It feels good to know everyone in our family tree. We need to know something more! We have to make an extra effort to know not just about the family tree, but to explore a little further and learn about the medical history of one’s family. We inherit from our parents and grandparents not just our height, weight and complexion, but many genetic diseases too. The medical history of the family tree is therefore very important to have a basic idea of the hereditary/genetic diseases.

Hereditary diseases are those which pass from one generation to another, as a result of simple mutation of single genes. These diseases caused by genetic or chromosomal disorders have a distinctive pattern of inheritance in the family.

There are about 6000 known hereditary diseases. Knowledge of family medical history, dating back to three-four generations, helps in taking precautions against these diseases to prevent or reduce the harmful effects of the disease.

Some of the common hereditary diseases are-

  • Diabetes
  • Heart diseases
  • Cancer
  • Stroke
  • Mental illness
  • Thyroid problems
  • Asthma
  • Down Syndrome
  • Hemophilia (blood disorder)
  • Retinitis Pigmentosa (degeneration of retina of eye, leading to blindness)
  • Haemochromatosis (liver damage due to accumulation of iron in the body)
  • Weak digestive system
  • Hypertension

Genes of some of the hereditary diseases inevitably affect the immediate next generation, whereas in case of some hereditary diseases, the gene carrying the disease remains silent in some generation. That is, it may skip one generation but surface in the next. If we know the family history of any disease we should start taking precautions and regular health check-ups from early childhood itself. Knowledge of family’s medical history will enable us to detect the symptoms early. Many diseases can be cured if detected and treated in the early stages.

Let’s consider some examples- My father has severe asthma. I and my brother carry the genes. Both of us do not have asthma, but we catch cold easily. We have inherited the weak respiratory system. Same is with my son, due to which I take every precaution to protect him from cold. My brother’s son has asthma.

My mother’s grandmother had Retinitis Pigmentosa. It skipped one generation and surfaced in my mother. The gene remained silent in my maternal grandmother and her siblings, and also in my mother’s sibings. It may or may not surface in my generation, but because me and all my maternal cousins carry the genes, regular eye check ups for all of us and our children is essential to detect the problem early.

When you know that you have the chance of contracting a disease, even though you haven’t contracted it till now, that knowledge itself motivates to take necessary precautions. Simple healthy lifestyle changes, proper diet, precautions and regular health check-ups go a long way in preventing severe damage to health caused by the hereditary diseases. We may not be able to prevent certain hereditary diseases entirely, but through precautionary measures we can reduce its impact to some extent. Experiences of our elders who have suffered, coupled with modern advancements in medical treatment can help us to chart out a healthier disease free life for ourselves and our future generation.

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2 Responses

  1. Very informative-thanks !