Did you know that talking with your biological mother or learning about her health history could help shed some light on your own health and well-being? You’ve no doubt heard that your genes impact your health. Your mother’s answers to questions about her fertility, pregnancy, menopause, cancer history, or heart disease risk factors might help you take better care of your health, especially if you are contemplating pregnancy. That is why it is important to have a heart-to-heart health chat with your mom sooner rather than later.
More researchers and healthcare providers increasingly recognize the importance of treating women’s health differently than men’s health. New genetic research and at-home genetic testing have helped identify genetic components of many women’s health conditions. But you can learn plenty without taking expensive tests, just by talking with your mother. Wondering which questions to ask? Keep reading The Pulse’s list of 10 health questions you should ask your mom to understand your own health better.
- Have you had breast, ovarian, uterine, or colon cancer?
If she answers yes, you’ll want to dig deeper with these questions:
- How old were you when diagnosed?
- What type of cancer did you have?
- At what stage were you diagnosed?
- Are there other family members diagnosed with the same type of cancer when they were under 50?
If your mother had cancer at a young age (younger than 50), you might need to start screening earlier than the standard age (40 for mammograms, 45 or 50 for colonoscopy). Breast and ovarian cancer can be genetic, caused by a gene called BRCA1 or BRCA2. If your mom was diagnosed with breast, ovarian, or colon cancer at a young age, it’s important to find out if she had any genetic testing done. You may want to talk with a genetic counselor to get a better sense of your personal risk based on your family history and discuss genetic testing with you.
- How is or was your menstrual cycle?
The timing of the first period (called menarche) can be similar in mothers and daughters. It turns out that period symptoms can also be similar between mothers and daughters, so you’ll want to follow up by asking:
- Was your period always regular?
- Was it painful?
- Did you have a heavy flow?
Her symptoms related to her periods, such as cramping, whether her flow was heavy or light, and if her cycles were regular, may offer clues about possible conditions such as polycystic ovarian syndrome or endometriosis that you may also have. Talking with Mom and your health care provider can help you get a better sense of what are normal and abnormal period symptoms.
Both endometriosis and PCOS can make it harder to get pregnant, so it is a good idea to know whether you have any family history of either condition if you are considering starting a family or having trouble getting pregnant. Even though PCOS is the most common endocrine (hormonal) disorder in women, it can be tricky to diagnose. Knowing ahead of time that you have a family history of PCOS could help speed your time to diagnosis and effective treatment.
Treating PCOS and making some lifestyle changes from an early age will also help you live a longer, healthier, and happier life. PCOS increases your chance of experiencing metabolic problems (diabetes, heart disease, obesity) and mood disorders (depression, anxiety, postpartum depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder).
- At what age did you start going through perimenopause?
At the other end of the reproductive spectrum is menopause – when women stop having their periods. Just like the timing of menarche can be inherited, so can the timing of perimenopause (the time before you go a year without a period) and menopause. Follow-up questions to ask your mother about her perimenopause and menopause (depending on her age) are:
- What symptoms did you have before you stopped having your period (hot flashes, night sweats, difficulty sleeping, mood changes, irregular periods, joint pain, urinary problems, brain fog)?
- How long did these symptoms last before your periods stopped?
Some women go through early menopause – early enough to impact their chances of getting pregnant. Premature menopause can be genetically linked. It is important to know if your mother stopped having periods before age 40 so that you can plan your childbearing future with your OBGYN.
- Was it easy for you to get pregnant?
Whether you have started trying to get pregnant or not, talking with your biological mother about her trying-to-conceive experience could offer important clues about what lies ahead. While her experience will not necessarily be yours, asking some of the following questions may give you some answers that would be helpful for your OBGYN or midwife to keep in mind:
- Did you ever have any miscarriages?
- How long did you try to get pregnant? Was it the same for all of your pregnancies?
- Did you ever take any medications to help you get pregnant or stay pregnant?
Keep in mind that there are many different causes of infertility, and not all are inherited. There are some fertility-challenging conditions like PCOS, endometriosis, or thyroid conditions, for example, that your mom might have passed on to you.
- Did you have any pregnancy complications?
It can be helpful for your obstetrical provider to know if your mother had any issues with cervical insufficiency or preterm labor, recurrent pregnancy losses, high blood pressure in pregnancy, or gestational diabetes. It does not mean you will have these complications with your pregnancy if your mother did. Research has just shown that daughters of women with the complications listed above are at higher risk for them.
Your mom’s pregnancy complications may also increase her health risks later in life in ways she may not be aware of. For example, if she had gestational diabetes, it is more likely that she will develop diabetes later in life. Similarly, if she had hypertension or preeclampsia she is at increased risk for heart disease as she ages. By you asking her these questions, it may remind her to review her pregnancy complication history with her primary care provider so that she gets the right health screenings.
- Have you ever been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease?
You should ask your mother about cardiovascular disease as well as its associated conditions (diabetes, hyperlipidemia, and hypertension). These conditions can increase your mom’s risk of heart attack and stroke.
If she had an early onset of heart disease (before menopause), there might be a genetic cause that you and your healthcare provider should be aware of. Familial hypercholesterolemia (or inherited high cholesterol) also can be passed from your mom and increase your risk of heart disease. If your family’s high cholesterol is caused by genes, you (and your mom) most likely will need to take cholesterol-lowering medications to prevent heart disease and stroke later in life.
Because pregnancy can be like a stress test for your body (and your heart), you need to know whether you might have any risk factors for heart problems during your pregnancy ahead of time.
- Do you have a history of blood clots?
If your mother has ever experienced deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolism (PE), you should find out if she’s had testing for an inherited thrombophilia. If she had a positive result for thrombophilia, you should also be tested. Certain thrombophilia increase your risk of blood clots with birth control pills and pregnancy. In pregnancy, you might need to take blood-thinning medication.
- Have you ever had thyroid disease or taken medication for your thyroid?
Thyroid diseases like hypothyroidism or low thyroid can run in families. They can also make it harder for you to get pregnant, cause miscarriages, or increase the chances that you have preterm labor or a smaller baby. Your healthcare provider can safely most thyroid diseases during your pregnancy if they know about them. The risk comes from missing the diagnosis and letting a disease go untreated.
- Do you get migraines?
According to The Migraine Research Foundation, 90 percent of sufferers have a family history of them. Approximately 1 in 5 pregnant women will experience a migraine during pregnancy. Many people’s migraines worsen during pregnancy, so it can be good to discuss a pregnancy migraine treatment plan with your obstetrical provider. Other people may not recognize their pregnancy headaches as migraines and suffer because they aren’t taking the best (or safest) medication to treat their pain. Knowing your family history could help you get the right treatment sooner.
- What is your mental health history?
Well, maybe don’t ask as bluntly as that because there is still a stigma associated with mental health diagnoses, especially for your mom, who was born before today’s world of online therapy options like “BetterHelp” or mental health apps like “Calm.” Finding a way to ask whether she was sad or struggled emotionally after her pregnancies may help you determine whether you could be at risk for postpartum depression, anxiety, or psychosis.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders can be genetic, so it’s important to understand what to look for as you start your pregnancy or approach your delivery.
Even if you have a good relationship with your mother, having some of these conversations may be tricky (like asking about postpartum depression or miscarriages). To help make this health heart-to-heart a bit easier, follow these tips:
- Find a time and place that is private and where you won’t be interrupted for at least an hour.
- Help your mom understand why you are asking these questions, i.e., your healthcare providers recommend finding out as much as possible about your family medical history.
While some of us might want to put off talking with our moms, especially if we worry that our questions might be upsetting, it is better to have “the talk” with mom sooner rather than later. It’s also important to have these discussions with other relatives if your biological mother isn’t available or sure of details, particularly regarding your family’s cancer history.
Remember that not all health conditions have a genetic component. You are not destined to repeat your mother’s health history. But, by asking your biological mother about her own health story with The Pulse’s list of 10 health questions, you may learn a wealth of health information that can help your women’s health providers take better care of you, especially when you are trying to conceive or during your pregnancy.