7 health questions every woman should ask her mom

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We ask our moms all sorts of questions, looking for direction and advice. But are you asking important questions about your mom’s health history? 

Most women aren’t, according to Heather Hirsch, MD MS, NCMP, who specializes in women’s health at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

“A lot of times, I ask my patients about their mother’s health history, and they tell me, ‘Oh, my mom doesn’t want to talk about those things.’”

Yet, having these conversations will help you take better care of your – and your mom’s – health and allow you to anticipate what may be in your future.

Dr. Hirsch offers seven questions every woman should ask her mother:

1. How was your menstrual cycle?

Was it regular? Painful? 

Even if your mother’s menstrual cycle has stopped, knowing more about it gives you insight into health conditions you might have inherited, including polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and endometriosis. Dr. Hirsch explains that PCOS is the most common endocrine disorder that affects younger women – its textbook symptoms include irregular periods, weight gain, facial hair, acne and, sometimes, infertility. Endometriosis can also be a cause of infertility and is often associated with painful menstrual cycles. 

Asking your mother if she had any of these issues when she was younger could help your healthcare provider understand what may be going on with you, so he or she can start treating your symptoms as early as possible. 

2. When you were pregnant, did you have any complications?

In particular, ask about conditions such as gestational hypertension, gestational diabetes, post-partum depression and any miscarriages. 

According to Dr. Hirsch, having a history of these medical conditions can increase your mom’s risk of developing hypertension, type 2 diabetes and emotional concerns such as depression or anxiety. 

"You want to make sure that if she had, say, gestational hypertension while she was pregnant, she let her current doctor know."

Knowing about these complications is also important because if your mother had any of them, you may be at increased risk of developing them as well during pregnancy. 

You should also ask your mom if she had multiple miscarriages. If so, that could raise a red flag for a blood-clotting disorder like Factor V Leiden mutations or other common genetic clotting disorders. 

3. Have you had breast, ovarian or uterine cancer?

How old were you when diagnosed? What type of cancer? What stage? Are there other family members who were diagnosed with the same type of cancer when they were under 50 years old?

"There’s a difference between a patient’s mom who had breast cancer at 80 and a patient’s mom who had breast cancer at 40," explains Dr. Hirsch. "The former is probably age-related breast cancer and likely not genetic, while in the case of the latter, there may be a genetic link." 

If you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, tell your doctor – he or she may recommend you see a genetic counselor. 

4. Have you been diagnosed with cardiovascular disease?

Ask if she has a history of high blood pressure or diabetes, which can increase the risk of heart attack and stroke.

Cardiovascular diseases is the number one cause of death in women in the United States.

"Again, if it happened when she was younger, that could denote a genetic link," says Dr. Hirsch. 

5. What happened when you went through menopause?

"You really tend to follow your mom’s pattern for menopause," says Dr. Hirsch. "Knowing at what age your mother’s period stopped is particularly helpful because most women tend to go into menopause at the same age." 

Menopause is the time when chronic diseases start to develop, adds Dr. Hirsch. 

"I see this every day: hypertension, weight gain, diabetes, depression, anxiety, osteoporosis, all diseases that can turn into cardiovascular and neurological events – the crucial time is at menopause. That’s why you want to know if it may start in your 40s or 50s."

It’s also helpful to ask your mother if she had a lot of symptoms, including hot flashes, night sweats or brain fog. If your mom had symptoms, you are more likely to have symptoms as well. 

There are lots of myths surrounding menopause – and you simply don’t have to suffer through menopause if it is affecting your quality of life. Dr. Hirsch provides menopause consultations at the Center for Women’s Health and has spent the majority of her medical career studying menopause.

6. Do you have osteoporosis?

More women will suffer from an osteoporotic fracture than from heart attacks, strokes and cancers combined, warns Dr. Hirsch. Osteoporotic fractures can be very dangerous and often have long-term effects on a woman’s health. 

"A family history of osteoporosis is important because it can increase your risk of having a low bone mass and therefore a higher propensity for a fracture, if you fall from a standing height," says Dr. Hirsch. 

If you know you have a family history of osteoporosis, let your doctor know. There are things you can do to keep your bone mass from getting too low, such as quitting smoking, doing weight-bearing exercises and ensuring enough vitamin D and calcium intake in your diet. 

7. Do you have a living will and a medical power of attorney? 

A living will doesn’t have to be particularly technical and most times you don’t even need to get a lawyer involved. As a family, make sure that you all know what your mother would do if her quality of life were to suffer as a result of an illness, and briefly write that down. In fact, anyone, regardless of age or medical condition, should complete this step.

"It's important that we know our mother's wishes in case something happens to her and she is unable to make her own medical decision," says Dr. Hirsch. "We should have those discussions."

Just remember, knowledge is power

Whatever you discover while talking to your mother, don’t let it scare you. Just because you’re more likely to develop certain conditions, it doesn't mean that you certainly will. 

Dr. Hirsch adds women should feel empowered by knowing what risks they face and see it as an opportunity to be healthier. 

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