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.
Nancy London and her mother, Joy
Credit: 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.


According to a study in the Archives of General Psychiatry, if one of your parents was diagnosed with depression, you have about a 40 percent chance of developing it yourself. But you can change your genetic fate in this case. “Establishing good cognitive coping strategies affects the brain at the cellular and neurochemical levels” and can prevent this illness, says Michael Yapko, Ph.D., a psychologist in Fallbrook, California. When sad feelings hit—or when you’re facing a situation that will probably trigger them, such as the death of a loved one or a job loss—put those strategies into action: Add meditation to your day, or write all your thoughts down in a journal. Aerobic exercise and a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can also help.

Heart Disease

“If your mom developed heart disease before age 65 (or your dad did before age 50), you have a 25 to 50 percent higher risk of getting it, too,” says Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist in New York City. Still, “only half of cardiovascular disease is explained by these factors,” says Goldberg. The other 50 percent is determined by your weight, diet, and exercise habits—meaning, if you’re mindful, you have a lot of control over whether you will suffer the same heart troubles as your mother.


After examining data from the more than 2,400 females participating in the multigenerational Framingham Heart Study, which began in 1948, researchers at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute concluded that genetics are at least half responsible for the age that a woman starts menopause (and there’s not a whole lot you can do to change that number). What’s more, “your mother’s experience with symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats may inform yours, especially if you have similar body types,” says Owen Montgomery, a gynecologist in Philadelphia.

Migrane Headaches

“If you have a first-degree relative, like a mother or a brother, who gets migraines, your risk for getting them is two to three times greater than someone who doesn’t,” says Elizabeth Loder, M.D., a headache specialist in Boston. That risk is even higher if their migraines started before age 16 or are severe. To minimize these headaches if they do start, keep a close eye on possible triggers, like hormone fluctuations over the course of the month, changes in the weather, a lack of sleep, and dietary triggers, which can include caffeine and alcohol. If you find that any of these trip your migraine wire, you may want to take a preventive medication prescribed by your doctor when you know that you’ll face them.


If your mom (or dad) has low bone density, “your risk for osteoporosis is about double that of someone who doesn’t have a family history,” says Felicia Cosman, M.D., an osteoporosis specialist in West Haverstraw, New York. To mitigate that risk, consume 1,000 to 1,500 milligrams of calcium and at least 1,000 international units (IU) of vitamin D daily, and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Weight-bearing aerobic exercise on most days and strength-training exercises two to three times a week can also help you to build and maintain bone density.

Pregnancy and Labor

Too many variables affect pregnancy—including a woman’s own anatomy, how old she is, the state of her health, and whether it’s a first or fourth child—for there to be a strong link between your mother’s experience and your own. Plus, changes in the way that medicine is practiced could give you a very different experience from your mom’s: “Today doctors do C-sections for situations like breech babies and multiples. That wasn’t the case when your mother had kids,” says Montgomery.

Substance Abuse

“Children of alcoholics have a three- to fourfold greater risk of developing alcoholism,” says Michael Weaver, M.D., an addiction medical specialist in Richmond. Although there’s less research on drug abuse, a similar risk is thought to apply. If you have such a background, it’s essential to monitor your consumption or stop altogether. “Sometimes it’s easier to say, ‘None at all,’ when there is a known genetic risk than to wonder, How much is too much?” says Weaver.