Are You Destined to Become Your Mother?

You would be happy to inherit your mom's wit, but not her health problems. Learn which genetic risks you face and how to protect your health.

Photo by Ditte Isager

Like Mother, Like Daughter?

Smart habits (a nutritious diet, regular exercise… you know the drill) can reduce or even eliminate your risk of developing many illnesses that may run in your family. “No matter your genetic profile, the lifestyle choices you make can trump heredity,” says Lawrence Cheskin, an internist at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center, in Baltimore. Here’s what experts have to say about how your mother’s health influences yours when it comes to common conditions and experiences.


Both rheumatoid arthritis (RA, an autoimmune disease) and osteo-arthritis (OA, an inflammatory disease related to wear and tear of the joints) have an inherited potential, “but we don’t know to what extent,” says Patience White, a rheumatologist in Washington, D.C. Rheumatoid arthritis is thought to carry a strong genetic component, and smoking has been shown to increase its risk. Osteoarthritis of the hands is also often genetic, so if your mom has it, you have a high risk of getting it, too. But osteoarthritis of the knees depends more on your weight and activity level (note that some exercises can aggravate OA, so check with your doctor).

Breast, Ovarian, and Colon Cancers

Surprisingly, your chance of developing breast, ovarian, or colon cancer isn’t necessarily higher if only your mother has had one of these diseases. “Having one first-degree relative with these cancers does not make your risk greater than the average woman’s,” says Carolyn D. Runowicz, a gynecologic oncologist in Farmington, Connecticut. “Your risk increases if you have two or more immediate-family members affected.” Also, if your mom’s breast cancer was premenopausal or you are of Ashkenazic ancestry, your chance of developing both breast and ovarian cancers is elevated, as you may well have a mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. This mutation carries a 60 to 80 percent lifetime risk of breast cancer and a 40 to 60 percent lifetime risk of ovarian cancer. To be safe, follow the screening recommendations for breast cancer (a yearly mammogram starting at age 40) and colon cancer (a colonoscopy at age 50 and every 10 years thereafter). While there are no screenings for ovarian cancer, a yearly Pap smear is recommended.

Cavities and Gum Disease

If your mom had cavities, you could, too: Genetic factors may account for more than 45 percent of the risk of tooth decay. (In fact, certain species of cavity-causing bacteria may even run in families.) And periodontal disease (a.k.a. gum disease) is estimated to be 39 percent hereditary. “A strong familial tendency toward these problems makes it even more important to practice fastidious home care and get dental checkups at least twice yearly,” says Barbara J. Steinberg, a dentist in Philadelphia. On the home front, be diligent about brushing at least twice a day and flossing at least once a day, and consider using an antimicrobial mouth rinse.