KNOWLEDGE is power, particularly when it comes to something as important as your health.
And to encourage men to be more proactive about their health, the Movember charity (uk.movember.com) is urging them to learn as much as possible about their family health history.
“We know that for many men, taking care of their health isn’t high on their list of priorities - at least until they get older, or a problem becomes impossible to ignore,” suggests Anne-Cecile Berthier, Movember’s UK director.
“But you can increase your chances of living longer by dealing with any health problems quickly.
“Major illnesses can run in families, which is why it’s vital to find out as much as you can about your own family history.
“Find out if your parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles suffered from any serious illness, especially if they died prematurely, and share that information with your GP.”
Alan White, emeritus professor of men’s health at Leeds Beckett University and patron of the Men’s Health Forum (menshealthforum.org.uk), suggests men often don’t have the same awareness of their family’s health as women.
“They’re not involved in the health chat as often as women are, so they perhaps miss out on what’s been going on within the family and what illnesses people have had or died from,” he says.
“Family history, although it doesn’t guarantee they’re going to get a disease, could increase their risk. They need to be aware of it, so they can increase their surveillance of certain diseases, perhaps modify certain risk factors, and inform their GP or other medical professionals, so they’re aware of the potential increased risk too.”
Certain health conditions can run in families - these are some of the ones men need to know about...
White says if a family member developed cardiovascular disease (CV) before they were 50, it increases the risk it’s hereditary, and therefore the risk that another family member may develop it.
“You can say to yourself, ‘If they’ve had it early, do I need to keep a more careful eye on my health, and tell my doctor my father had a heart attack when he was quite young?’” White says.
According to Cancer Research UK (cancerresearchuk.org), the risk of having testicular cancer is around four to five times higher in men whose father was diagnosed with the disease, and the risk is eight to nine times higher in men with a brother diagnosed with the disease.
“It’s important you keep an eye out for cancer histories within families,” advises White.
“Testicular cancer isn’t very common, but if you know your father or brother’s had it, it’s wise for you to be aware that you may be at increased risk.
“Early diagnosis is important, and while there are all sorts of things that might cause testicular difficulties, the only way of ruling them out is by having a check with a GP.”
White acknowledges that some men will be embarrassed about asking a doctor to examine their testicles, but stresses: “Embarrassment kills. Doctors have seen it all, their job is to diagnose and treat. If something doesn’t feel right, get it checked out.”
Berthier explains that testicular cancer is the most common cancer in young men - although survival rates are high if caught and treated early.
“It’s also one of the few cancers you can check yourself for,” she says. “The best way is to get into the habit of doing a self-examination in the shower every month or so.”
Prostate cancer - the most common cancer in males - can run in families, according to Berthier.
She says early detection is key to successful treatment, although there are often no symptoms until the disease is advanced.
“Your risk of developing prostate cancer increases with age, but another major risk factor is your family history,” she explains. “Someone who has a brother or father with prostate cancer is two-and-a-half times more likely to get it than a man with no family history of the disease.”
Berthier says men who are 45 or over and have a brother or father with prostate cancer should talk to their GP about their prostate risk, and whether they might need a PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test.
White adds: “If you have a close relative who’s been diagnosed with prostate cancer, it’s about keeping an eye on yourself and not dismissing changes. The problem comes when it’s left too late - family history is like an early warning sign to show you might be at increased risk.”
Bowel Cancer UK (bowelcanceruk.org.uk) says the risk of developing bowel (colorectal) cancer may be higher if you have a family history of the disease.
If you have a relative who’s been diagnosed with colorectal cancer, White recommends thinking about your diet - eating more fruit and fibre - and reducing smoking and drinking alcohol.
“These are all things that can definitely decrease your risk of colorectal cancer,” he says.
“People who have cancer in the family may be started on screening earlier, to rule out having some predisposition to it. A lot of cancer is about genes going wrong, and you inherit your genes.”
Mental health problems
“There are links between family history and developing most of the main mental health problems, such as schizophrenia, psychosis, depression and anxiety-related disorders yourself,” suggests White.
Type 2 diabetes
According to Diabetes UK (diabetes.org.uk), you’re two to six times more likely to get type 2 diabetes if a parent, brother, sister or child has it.
“Diabetes has a potentially inherited aspect to it, which can be moderated by lifestyle changes,” explains White. “If you’ve got relatives who have diabetes, it’s important to know about it.”
Although osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones, is often seen as a woman’s problem, White says a lot of men suffer from it too.
“If there’s a history of osteoporosis in the family, men should be aware of it, so if they have a fracture they know it may well be as a result of bone thinning from an inherited tendency,” he says.