Health Encyclopedia

Genetics and Illness: What's Your Fate?

If you have a parent or sibling with heart disease, cancer, or some other serious and likely genetic condition, does that mean you are doomed to the same fate?

Research tells the role that genes play in some health problems. Genes are the material that is passed down that forms your body's blueprint. Often, your lifestyle and environment can play a role in developing disease. What you eat and breathe can mix with disease-prone genes to make a potential disease a reality.

Know your family history

Being aware of your family history tells you about what health problems you may be at special risk for. This can give you a chance to put-off or control those health problems. For example, experts think most cancers result from “two hits.” You inherit one normal gene from one parent and one cancer gene from your other parent. There are two major types of cancer genes, oncogenes and tumor suppressor genes. You might have one type of cancer gene, but your normal gene protects you from cancer. If lifestyle and environmental factors knock out the normal gene, you may get cancer.

Improving the odds

There are things you can do to help your body's efforts to undo any genetic harm:

  • Eat a low-fat diet.

  • Get plenty of exercise.

  • Don't smoke or use other types of tobacco.

  • Avoid or limit alcohol to no more than one drink a day for a woman or two drinks a day for a man.

That's good advice for anyone. But it's particularly true if you have a family history of certain health problems, such as heart disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. It's even more true if close family members got those health problems at a young age.

Follow your health care provider's advice for health screenings that could find out your risk. He or she can also spot warning signs or the early stages of a disease.

Heart disease

Family histories of high cholesterol, diabetes, or high blood pressure are risk factors for heart disease. It is thought that you have a significant family history if your father or brother had heart disease before age 55 or your mother before age 65.

To check your risk, get your cholesterol and triglycerides checked. Raised triglycerides are linked to ischemic heart disease and heart attacks. Get your blood pressure checked every year, or more often if you have high blood pressure. Blood pressure checks spot high blood pressure. Electrocardiograms and stress tests are done if you are at higher risk for heart disease or if you are having symptoms.

For a healthier heart, lower your cholesterol, exercise, and cut your fat intake to stay at your ideal weight. Get treated for high blood pressure or diabetes, and control your stress. If you smoke, stop.


The rule of thumb for many cancers: The younger your parents or siblings were when they developed the cancer, and the more members of your family who have developed the cancer, the greater your risk.

  • Colorectal cancer. Familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) causes colon polyps by the hundreds. This makes up for only a small rate of colorectal cancers. But FAP almost always leads to colorectal cancer by the time a person is in his or her 40s. If you have family members with FAP, your health care provider may suggest testing as early as age 10.

  • Breast cancer . If either your mother, daughter, or sister has had breast cancer, your risk grows two to three times. And if a woman carries one genetic mutation (in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes), her risk can be 60%. Even so, only about 5% to 10% of breast cancers seem to be caused by currently recognized genetic mutations. If you have a family background, talk with your health care provider about early testing.

  • Prostate cancer. Some experts think the majority of men over age 80 have at least very small traces of prostate cancer. You need to be particularly on guard, however, if a close family member died of prostate cancer before age 50. If you have a family history, talk with your health care provider about early testing.

The American Cancer Society says that a low-fat diet that includes 5 daily servings of fruit and veggies, especially tomatoes, may help put off prostate cancer.

Blood tests can help

It's not too farfetched to think about the day when a simple blood test can probe deeply into your genetic makeup, predicting your future health. With near certainty, you may know the health problems you'll get or face a higher risk of getting.

At this time, tests can point out carriers of inherited (passed down) health problems that need changed genes from both parents. These diseases include sickle-cell anemia and Tay-Sachs disease. Amniocentesis can show genetic health problems like Down syndrome. This a test that studies the amniotic fluid around a fetus (developing baby).

Right now, a large amount of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental reasons are thought to cause many of the major health problems. There is no genetic testing available for these health problems. The best things a person can do to prevent or lower the risk for these genetic health problems is to:

  • Get the proper diagnostic testing as told by your health care provider.

  • Keep a healthy weight.

  • Get regular mild to brisk exercise.

  • Eat 2.5 cups of veggies and 2 cups of fruits each day.

  • Eat a low-fat diet.

  • Don’t smoke or use other tobacco products.

  • Avoid too much alcohol.

  • Avoid work-related or environmental exposures to chemicals that cause cancer by using the right protective gear.

  • Use proper sun protection and make sure your kids don’t get sunburned.

  • If you have certain genetic diseases in your family, talk with a geneticist.


Medical Reviewers:

  • Holloway, Beth, RN, MEd