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09 March 2018
Patient services

This Mother’s Day, one of our GPs, Dr Pixie McKenna, reflects on some of the health care questions you should think about asking your mum in regards to family history of any medical issues and how you can look after each other’s health.

Don’t forget to ask your dad as well, for a full understanding of your family’s health. 

Dr Pixie McKenna smiling in her surgery

Has she had a gallstone attack?

Female, fair, fat, forty and fertile is a phrase that most medical students can reel off. It’s to remind them of the type of person that suffers from gallstones. Women are two to three times more likely to get gallstones than men. While one in 10 of us will get them at some point in our lives only one in 50 of us will actually be bothered by them.

If they decide to cause mischief it is generally in the form of right-sided tummy pain (usually under the rib), nausea, indigestion and fever often coming on after a fatty meal. Armed with the knowledge that they are in the family you could cut out fatty food, reduce your weight, avoid HRT or the pill as this can make them worse, and not crash diet as this too may aggravate them.

If you end up being saddled with your mother’s gallstones in spite of your best efforts the next step is removal of the gallbladder complete with stones, and your symptoms disappear. They don’t come back but you are likely to pass the tendency on to your daughter!

Ultrasound scans for gallstones

How’s her heart?

Heart disease can be hereditary so it is vital to know your history. If your mother suffered cardiovascular disease before the age of 65 you need to know this as it increases your own personal risk of suffering a stroke or a heart attack. A strong family of heart disease may prompt a doctor to intervene early to prevent adverse events e.g. put you on aspirin.

In terms of prevention it makes sense to reduce other risk factors such as by quitting smoking. You have no control over what mums passed down the family tree but bad habits are your own fault! Your family history may not necessarily lead to a life-changing event like a heart attack or a stroke but it can make you susceptible to silent diseases like high blood pressure and high cholesterol.

Ask your mum what tablets she takes and why she takes them otherwise you may be storing up trouble for the future.

Cardiology services


Are her bones brittle?

Has your mum broken a hip, if so how and why? The answers could be the key to combating your own Osteoporosis.

You have to face facts it is on the cards, as by the age of 75 half of us have it to a degree. As we age, our bones become brittle and so when we fall we are more likely to suffer fractures.

Over a thousand people die prematurely every single month in the UK as a direct result of hip fractures so it’s not just a question of being laid up!

Knowing that you have a loaded family history means you can make changes long before the menopause hits. Losing weight, doing weight bearing exercise, cutting out cigarettes and controlling your alcohol intake all help bone health.

DEXA bone density scan



Your lifetime risk of breast cancer is one in eight, whoever your mother is.

Because it is so common more than one woman in a family may develop it by chance. Between 5-10 per cent of breast cancers are hereditary. The BRAC1/BRAC2 gene is known to increase the risk of both breast and ovarian cancer. This is only likely if very close relatives have had breast cancer.

You should know if one first degree relative developed breast cancer below the age of 40 or two close relatives developed breast cancer below the age of 60.It is also important to know if three close relatives, irrespective of their age, developed breast cancer at any age.

A history of both breast and ovary cancer on the same side of the family is also concerning. You sometimes have to delve into why people died as most families will just blame “cancer” and may not specify. If there appears to be a genetic link, take the family tree to the GP who can refer you for genetic counselling and testing where appropriate.

Remember that about one in four cancers in the UK could be cut out if people changed their lifestyles. If you have a strong family history of breast cancer act now, even something as simple as not drinking more than 1 unit of alcohol per day could reduce your breast cancer risk.


Has she had to tackle her thyroid?

Most cases of thyroid problems are due to the immune system staging a protest against the gland and impairing its function.

We call this an autoimmune reaction and the most common type of immune reaction impairing your thyroid gland function is called Hashimoto's disease.

This runs in families and is also linked to type 1 diabetes and vitiligo. One in 50 women suffer from an under-active thyroid while only one in 1000 men suffer the condition. Speak to your mum, as it is most common in adult women as they age.

Knowing there is a family history of it might help make sense of your own personal symptoms like tiredness, lethargy and weight gain and prompt you to get tested.

Treating something like an underactive thyroid can positively impact you physically and psychologically, and it’s done by simply taking a pill!

Endocrinology services



Depression can run in families and it is often swept under the carpet, so do delve into the family history where mental health is concerned.

Your mum may have had depression post-natally, during the menopause or when her marriage broke up. Equally it could have come on out of the blue and she may have tried her best to beat it without breathing a word to anyone in the family.

The stronger the family history for depression, the more likely you are to succumb. It is thought that genetics are probably to blame for 30% of depression while life events trigger the rest. Combine the two and you raise the stakes.

The good news is that the ability to respond to treatment tends also to be genetic, so if mum beat her depression with pills you probably could too. Understanding your mum’s symptoms can help you understand yours and - clichéd and all as it may sound - it really is good to talk.

GP services

Mature lady having a coffee with her daughter

What is going on behind the eyes?

Glaucoma is an eye condition causing increased pressure in the eye. The build up of fluid can put pressure on the nerve of vision resulting in loss of vision and possible blindness.

If your mother has glaucoma and you are over 40, you are entitled to a free test sight test every year by the NHS. This is because glaucoma runs in families and although rare before 40, 1% of the population over 40 suffer.

There are usually no symptoms at first but gradually vision starts to deteriorate. Unfortunately you cannot get back the vision you lose but can preserve the vision you have, once treatment is initiated.

The Eye Centre


Any history of "stomach" cancer?

Your lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer as a woman is in the region of one in 19. Many people refer generically to "stomach" cancer so it is important to know exactly what they mean.

Colorectal cancer can run in families so if mum has had any first degree relative under 45 get it or two or more first degree relatives of any age get it, this type of information could be lifesaving. It may prompt your GP to dismiss your diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome and refer you instead for a colonoscopy.

Caught early, bowel cancer can be cured but discover it too late and it will kill you. If you do have a family history limit your own personal risk by getting active, keeping an eye on our alcohol intake, eating your five a day and reducing your intake of red and processed meats.

In England, the Bowel Cancer Screening Programmed starts at 60 but that shouldn't stop you seeing a GP if you are worried. It is also good to encourage both your mother and father to take the test if they avoid it.

Many people baulk at the thought of sending their poo in the post when it could in fact be a life saver!

Digestive diseases unit



Become familiar with your family history so that you can look after your health in a more informed way, and continue to support your loved ones.

Wishing all the mothers out there a very happy Mother’s day!

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