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Your family history could impact your digestive health

Every family has a history. What’s yours?

Many gastrointestinal (GI) diseases and conditions are inherited, and our understanding of the role our genes play in disease is expanding rapidly with the sequencing of the human genome. Some GI conditions now have genetic testing available.

Understanding your family history and potential risks can be important to managing your health, nutrition and lifestyle choices, family planning, and screening recommendations for you and other members of your family.

Inherited gastrointestinal diseases and conditions may include the following:

Colon and small intestine conditions

  1. Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). IBD includes ulcerative colitis (inflammation of the large intestine) and Crohn’s disease (inflammation of the tail end of the small intestine).
  2. Celiac disease. With this serious autoimmune disorder, eating gluten (found in wheat, rye and barley) triggers an immune system response that damages the small intestine. Approximately 1 in 100 people worldwide are affected by this disorder. If your parent, sibling or child has celiac disease, you have a 1 in 10 risk of developing this problem.
  3. Hereditary hemochromatosis. Hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb too much dietary iron and affects the liver, heart, pancreas and endocrine system. It is the most common genetic disorder among Caucasians (prevalence of 1 in 200 in people of Celtic or Nordic ancestry).
  4. Lynch syndrome (hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer). People with Lynch syndrome have an increased risk for cancers of the stomach, small intestine, liver, gallbladder ducts, upper urinary tract, brain and skin and, for women, an increased risk of cancer of the ovaries and lining of the uterus. Colon polyps occur at an earlier age than the general population.
  5. Familial adenomatous polyposis. Patients develop hundreds or even thousands of polyps in their colon starting at a young age (as early as their teens) with cancer developing at an average age of 39.
  6. Juvenile polyposis syndrome. In patients with this syndrome, polyps can develop by age 20. Most of these polyps are noncancerous, but patients have an increased risk of digestive tract cancers in their lifetime.
  7. Peutz-Jerghers syndrome. People with this condition develop noncancerous growths (polyps) in the stomach and intestines and have a much higher risk of developing cancers of the gastrointestinal tract, pancreas, cervix, ovary and breast.

Liver conditions

  1. Autoimmune hepatitis. This form of hepatitis is a chronic condition in which the body’s immune system attacks the liver, causing inflammation. If not treated, autoimmune hepatitis can lead to cirrhosis and liver failure.
  2. Polycystic liver disease. With this rare disease, patients’ livers develop many cysts (fluid-filled sacs) in their livers. Liver function may be unaffected if the patient has fewer or smaller cysts.
  3. Budd-Chiari syndrome. With this rare disorder the veins of the liver (hepatic veins) narrow and become obstructed.
  4. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This condition may result in serious liver disease in infants, children and adults, as well as serious lung disease in adults. A protein, alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) cannot be released from the liver normally. AAT builds up in the liver and can cause liver disease.
  5. Wilson’s disease. A genetic defect causes excessive copper accumulation in the liver or brain, resulting in hepatitis or psychiatric/neurologic symptoms. Symptoms typically appear in adolescence and are always fatal if not diagnosed and treated.

Pancreas conditions

  1. Pancreatitis. Pancreatitis is inflammation of the pancreas, a gland located behind the stomach and next to the first part of the small intestine (duodenum) that secretes enzymes into the duodenum. Pancreatic enzymes mix with bile from the liver to digest food. Acute pancreatitis can be life-threatening with severe complications. The most common cause of pancreatitis is gallstones, but it can also be caused by genetic abnormalities of the pancreas.
  2. Neuroendocrine tumors. Neuroendocrine tumors begin in hormone-producing cells that are found in certain organs including the gastrointestinal tract. These include mainly carcinoid and pancreas islet cell tumors.

Learn more

Contact the Digestive Health Institute at (406) 752-7441.