To Your Good Health: Take Care of the Caregivers

Dear Dr. Roach: Several of my friends developed breast cancer shortly after the death of their husband, child or someone else close. Your comments, please, regarding great stress and cancer.— M.W.

Answer: I think there are two issues here. The first is that prolonged, severe stress predisposes us to illness ‑— including cancer, heart disease and infection.

The second is that caregivers don’t always take good care of themselves — don’t recognize or pay attention to early signs that problems are coming on. One of my colleagues wisely reminds her patients that they always tell you on an airplane to put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others. You need to be in good condition to be able to help others. I know (I really do) how hard it is, but take some time for yourself. That includes going for your regular check-ups and getting your appropriate screening tests.

Dear Dr. Roach: Several, but not all, of our grandchildren strongly take after one side of the family. In complexion, hair and eye color and build, these kids are “chips off the block” of this one side of the family. Is it also likely that they will then have a propensity to inherit that family’s most prominent health conditions: arthritis, blood pressure, dental, eyesight and drinking tendencies? — G.P.

Answer: Both genetics and environment contribute to the likelihood of an individual showing signs or symptoms of diseases or medical conditions. However, there is roughly a 50 percent chance of any characteristic coming from a given side. Of the conditions you mention, all of them have some genetic component, but there isn’t a way to tell about one characteristic from another, in general. In other words, even if your granddaughter is the very image of her aunt with high blood pressure, there is no guarantee that she will have high blood pressure too. Her risk is only somewhat higher than the average person’s.

Dear Dr. Roach: I have heard conflicting reports about flaxseed oil. Dr. Donohue recommended flaxseed oil, but I read another article that said it should not be consumed. I thought it was a good source of omega-3, but now I don’t know if I should throw out my capsules. I see far fewer flaxseed oil products displayed on counters compared to what there once was. — S.G.

Answer: Flaxseed oil does contain large amount of ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid. There is pretty good evidence that this oil may reduce the risk of heart disease by acting favorably on cholesterol and triglyceride levels.

However, ground flax seeds contain both the ALA and also fiber and lignans. Fiber helps with bowel regularity (both for diarrhea and constipation), and lignans have estrogenlike properties and are purported to have anticancer properties, as yet unproven in humans. The estrogen effect of ground flaxseed is not enough to help with hot flashes, but it may be enough to cause problems in pregnant women or those with a history of breast cancer.

The article you sent recommended ground flax instead of flaxseed oil. Ground flax has the advantages of the fiber, and the mixed effects of the lignans. Both ground flax and flaxseed oil can go rancid unless stored in sealed containers or refrigerated.

Dr. Roach regrets that he is unable to answer individual letters, but will incorporate them in the column whenever possible. Readers may email questions to ToYourGoodHealth@med.cornell.edu or write to P.O. Box 536475, Orlan do, FL 32853-6475.