In 2,290 games for the New York Yankees, centerfielder Mickey Mantle made only 107 errors and won the 1962 Gold Glove, baseball’s highest fielding honor. But APS Charter Member Janice Hastrup said it may be that an error Mantle made off the field cost him years of life, and that understanding this mistake could add years to everyone else’s.
“Mantle’s biggest error was over-interpreting an apparent genetic susceptibility to cancer,” said Hastrup at the National Human Genome Research Institute, a component of the National Institutes of Health. A notorious alcoholic, Mantle believed a family history of early mortality meant he too would die young. According to Hastrup, University at Buffalo, it was this belief, and not necessarily a genetic predisposition for a young death, “that caused Mantle’s early demise.”
Mantle’s father died at 40 from Hodgkin’s disease, at a time when the illness was invariably fatal. He also had several uncles who died prior to 40. According to Hastrup, Mantle started thinking, “I’m probably going to die young, so I might as well enjoy myself.” A 46-year-old Mantle purportedly said, “If I knew I was going to live this long I would have taken better care of myself.” His hedonistic behavior caused irreparable liver damage, and even though he outlived the preceding Mantle generation, making it to 63, he died young for his day.
Today about one-third of the population shares Mantle’s narrow outlook regarding family history of disease, a belief known as genetic determinism, or one-factor health reasoning.
This faulty reasoning can take two forms: the belief that a person cannot prevent or minimize a disease risk if family history of disease is present; or the belief that a person is immune from a certain disease that doesn’t appear in a family history. The danger is that a person bearing this Mantle mindset is less likely to pursue avenues of prevention and other appropriate health behaviors that could curb or even eliminate a disease entirely.
While research has shown that a person with a family history of disease is at higher risks than someone without that history, Hastrup claimed “these things are not absolute.” In fact, she said a person who has a family history but takes preventive measures has a very similar likelihood of suffering from a disease as someone who does not have a family history and therefore avoids preventive action.
“People aren’t very confident in their ability to overcome these family histories that they carry around,” Hastrup said. “One-factor reasoning can keep a person from applying new knowledge on risk status and new knowledge on preventive behaviors.” With increasingly effective preventive measures, as well as the emergence of the Human Genome Project, which seeks to identify the function of all 30-40,000 genes in the human body, Hastrup’s findings are more important than ever, since they show that genes are only part of a person’s overall health.
Hastrup attributed much of the low confidence to a lack of media dissemination. “The media don’t always stress the idea that there’s prevention for many diseases,” she said. One case in point is the strong preventive movement that followed news anchor Katie Couric’s campaign to screen for colon cancer. Hastrup said other preventive measures aren’t even as involved.
“Getting check-ups, checking your blood sugar, changing diet, getting exercise, or eating more fiber – there are a lot of things you can do to lower the risk of health problems. Early detection can decrease morbidity and mortality. We can prevent strokes now from just having people on anti-hypertensive medication,” she said.
She hopes an increased media effort, such as a recent five-part news segment “Is Cancer in Your Family Tree?” on Western New York’s WIVB-TV, as well as an increased focus by NIH on prevention, will help people understand the role they play in their own posterity. If you have a family history of disease, “consult a physician,” Hastrup said. “Sure we can treat problems after they come up, but it would be so much better if we could prevent them.” And just like an opposing pitcher intentionally walking Mantle to get to Yogi Berra, at least there’s a slightly better chance of survival.