What It Means to Have a Family History of Disease
Updated on March 18, 2024
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What It Means to Have a Family History of Disease

The following diseases are just some that can run in your family, especially if you and your relatives have a history of these conditions:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
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You have a higher chance of contracting these diseases if your family also has them. These aren’t the only ones, but these are usually the first few that doctors look out for.

Still, it’s important to remember that a family history doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a disease. Understanding your family health history helps you evaluate your risks. Moreover, a healthy lifestyle and a good environment matter.

To lower your risk, eat well, stay active, and talk to a doctor if you’re concerned. A geneticist or healthcare professional can give you personalized advice and suggest genetic testing to understand your risk better.

What Does It Mean When People Say a Disease Runs in the Family?

Most people consider a disease that affects two or more family members within the same biological family something that runs in families.

There are several reasons why a medical condition might run in a family, including:

  • Gene variations/mutations
  • Environmental factors
  • Combination of genetic and environmental factors
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Usually a disease that runs in the family is a genetic disorder, but your susceptibility to other diseases may increase if you are raised in an environment that may allow those diseases to thrive.

For example, if your family stays in a polluted area and leads an unhealthy lifestyle with a poor diet, you may be prone to contracting the same diseases your relatives have.

You may also exacerbate the possibility of an inherited disease if you are not in a good environment or have poor hygiene.

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How Do Diseases Get Passed Down?

Because genes are passed down from parent to offspring, any changes that may have occurred in their genes (called mutations) will be passed down to their child.1 Your child is inheriting copies of your DNA, and if you already have mutated sequences or genes, they will get them too.

It’s also possible for new mutations to occur in your child’s DNA, which they will pass down to their offspring if they have any.

Mutated genes do not function the same way as normal genes—this is what causes the genetic disorder. Sometimes it’s just one mutation in a gene. Other times, several can work together to create an even more complex web of genetic illnesses.

What Causes a Gene Mutation?

A gene mutation is caused by random errors in the duplication process of DNA.4 Sometimes, the sequence of the nucleotide bases in your DNA (adenine, thymine, guanine, and cytosine) gets jumbled randomly, or even because of the presence of damaging agents like radiation or chemicals.

These mutations either cause genetic disorders or increase your susceptibility to them.

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Will You Always Contract the Disease if You Have a Mutated Gene?

If you inherit the gene for a genetic disorder, you won’t always show signs of it or even contract it. This is because we each have two copies of genes contained in our chromosomes—one copy from each parent. Even if you inherit one copy of a mutated gene, you won’t exhibit signs or symptoms of that disorder. This is called recessive inheritance.1

Genetic disorders inherited in a recessive pattern need two mutated copies in order to manifest. So even if you have one copy, you won’t technically exhibit the disease.

However, other mutations can manifest even with just one copy. These are dominant disorders. Dominant inheritance patterns mean that even just one faulty copy of a gene is enough to pass the disease on to your offspiring.

What Does It Mean to Be a Carrier?

If you don’t have a genetic disorder but you carry the gene for it, you are a carrier.2

Some genetic diseases “skip” generations, but only because the inheritance pattern doesn’t always produce an affected child.

If you carry a recessive gene and have children with someone who doesn’t have that same gene mutation, your children may not inherit the condition. However, if you do have children with someone who has the same gene mutation, you run the risk of producing an affected child. So even if you didn’t have the disorder, your children may get it.

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What Are the Different Types of Genetic Disorders?

There are four different types of genetic disorders, namely:

1. Single-gene Gene Mutations

These occur when variations (or mutations) occur in the DNA sequence of one specific gene.3

This affects the product that the gene codes for, causing changes or absences. The features of each disorder are related to the specific affected gene and the job of that gene.

2. Multiple-Gene Mutations

A multiple-gene mutation, often called polygenic or multifactorial inheritance, involves changes in multiple genes working together to influence a trait or predisposition to a condition.

The mutations can work with each other and environmental factors to determine a person’s traits, risk of diseases, or other complex characteristics. Unlike simple variations in one gene, multiple gene mutations involve a more complex web of genetic factors.

3. Chromosomal Changes

Chromosomal changes mean variations in the structure or number of chromosomes inside the cells.

These changes can happen when the cells divide and sometimes lead to conditions like Down syndrome, where there’s an extra chromosome. They can be inherited or occur unexpectedly during growth.

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4. Mitochondrial Mutations

These mutations are changes in the genes of tiny cellular powerhouses called mitochondria.

Mitochondrial mutations can affect how these powerhouses work and cause health problems because they help fuel our cells. Unlike most genes, which come from both parents, mitochondrial DNA is passed down by the biological mother.

Mutations or variations are caused by:

  • Random errors when the DNA sequence in the cell’s nucleus is duplicated during cell division
  • Exposure to DNA-damaging agents such as radiation or chemicals

There isn’t much you can do if you have an inherent risk for something due to a random error alone. It’s still smart to make healthy choices, but ultimately, you can’t fix the error.

Other Genetic Disorders You May Inherit

Some of the most common genetic diseases that aren’t prevented by lifestyle changes include:

  • Cystic fibrosis
  • Down syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Inherited clotting problems
  • Familial combined hyperlipidemia
  • Familial hypercholesterolemia
  • Huntington’s disease
  • Duchenne muscular dystrophy
  • Becker muscular dystrophy
  • Sickle cell anemia
  • Thalassemia
  • Phenylketonuria (PKU)

If you’d like to know more about your risk of inheriting these diseases, you can turn to genetic testing and ask your healthcare provider or genetic specialist for guidance and interpretation.

Environmental Risks that Run in Families

Environmental risks run in families due to shared behaviors and living conditions.

If your risk is purely environmental, you can make changes that will significantly reduce your risk. In this case, your risk is not genetic. However, the disease may run in your family because more than one person was exposed to a certain damaging environmental factor.

For example, if your mother developed lung cancer after smoking cigarettes most of her life, there’s a chance second-hand smoke exposure affected you, making you more at risk for lung cancer. You weren’t born with a lung cancer gene, but your environment created a higher risk.

However, if you choose not to smoke and avoid other things that increase your risk of cancer, you’ll have a smaller chance of developing the disease despite your original environmental risk.

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Source: 123rf

Other factors such as pollution in the area you grew up in or poor air quality can also affect your chances of getting sick. While these diseases are not something you inherit genetically, living in areas where hygiene and cleanliness are luxuries can increase your risk.

This is why certain communities that live in less-developed areas suffer from similar illnesses.

Genetic and Environmental Risks of Disease

You’re more likely to develop a disease if you have both a genetic and an environmental risk for it.

You’re still more at risk than the average person, even if it’s partly environmental. This might sound frightening, but ultimately, knowing your genetic risks and knowing there are choices you can make to reduce those risks is empowering and can help you better figure out what lifestyle changes to make.

How to Reduce Your Chances of Disease with Genetic and Environmental Risks

For example, to reduce your risk of health issues linked to genetic factors, you can:

  • Improve a poor diet
  • Exercise
  • Avoid tobacco use
  • Manage stress
  • Discuss your family’s health history with your doctor so you can create a screening process that catches diseases in the family early

For example, consider a woman with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer because her mother and grandmother had it. She understands this and implements a healthy lifestyle to counteract her risk factors. On top of that, she visits her doctor annually for an examination and undergoes ovarian cancer screenings beginning early in life.

This woman has an increased risk for ovarian cancer because of her family health history. However, she’s managing the risk as much as possible. And if she still develops the disease despite these measures, doctors will identify it early, making it highly treatable.

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Source: 123rf

Some diseases that have a link to family history but are also influenced by lifestyle choices:

  • Breast cancer
  • Ovarian cancer
  • Heart disease and heart conditions
  • High blood pressure
  • Prostate cancer
  • Colon cancer
  • Mental illness

Even if you can’t avoid a chronic disease or severe illness, understanding its link to your family history can help you manage it better. Also, discuss your family history with your doctor for early screenings.

Genetic Issues Without a Lifestyle Component

There are instances in which lifestyle changes have little to no effect on someone’s likelihood of having a genetic disease.

For example, nothing can be done to reduce someone’s risk of cystic fibrosis.

These single-gene disorders are passed on from parents and recognized early in life. The only thing that can be done is for parents to determine their risk of passing along the risk of a disease to their children. Then, they can decide whether or not to have biological children, given that risk.

Birth defects and genetic diseases are some of the primary reasons people undergo genetic testing. It’s not to determine if they are at risk. It’s to see if they carry a high risk of passing something detrimental to their potential children. From there, they can make a more informed decision and explore other options.

Should You Undergo Genetic Testing?

If you are curious about what diseases run in families and whether or not any of these genetic risks could affect you or your children, you should speak to your doctor. They can suggest genetic testing to screen for issues of greatest concern.

Some at-home genetic testing can also help you identify risks. This is a less expensive place to begin if you aren’t ready to undergo professional testing.

Pros and Cons of Genetic Testing

It’s understandable why someone with a family health history of serious medical issues would want to undergo genetic testing. Identifying your risks helps you make smart choices about your health.

Genetic testing can help you:

  • Identify risk early
  • Prepare for any difficulties ahead of time
  • Give you an idea of lifestyle changes to make

However, it can also come with downsides, such as:

  • Anxiety around potential risk
  • Added cost
  • Some tests may be inconclusive, which can exacerbate stress

Emotionally, it can feel overwhelming to know your family health history puts you at risk for severe health problems. This is especially true when lifestyle changes don’t affect your genetic risk.

Before undergoing genetic testing to determine how your family health history could affect you, make sure you are prepared for the results. Some people want as much information as possible, even bad news.

Others would prefer not to know their risk if there is very little they can do to change their situation. It’s important to be in the right frame of mind and have the support you need before exploring your family health history.

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Source: 123rf

Can I Do a DNA Test at Home?

Yes, you can. At-home DNA tests are pretty common and very accessible nowadays, but make sure you don’t take all the results at face value.

The accuracy of your results depends on several factors, such as:

  • If you accomplished the test properly
  • If it was sealed properly
  • If it was sent safely back to the lab without any foreign contaminants
  • If it was processed properly

While most of these at-home DNA tests do a good job of analyzing your DNA, make sure you also have a genetic counselor or your healthcare provider take a look at your results. Don’t panic right away at any mention of genetic risk in your results. Ask your doctor for further instruction and guidance first.

That way, you can best make more informed decisions about any lifestyle or diet changes you’ll make instead of making wild guesses on your own.

Your DNA test results can be a great starting point for circumventing any health issues that may arise, so make sure to accomplish the test properly and get an expert opinion as well.

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Updated on March 18, 2024
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4 sources cited
Updated on March 18, 2024
  1. Genes and Inherited Diseases.” Illumina.

  2. Carrier.” My Health Alberta.

  3. . “Single Gene Disorders.” Understanding Genetics: A District of Columbia Guide for Patients and Health Professionals.

  4. What Is a Gene Mutation?” Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Dr. Dhingra
Dr. Harshi Dhingra
Medical Reviewer
Dr Harshi Dhingra is a licensed medical doctor with a specialization in Pathology. Dr. Dhingra has of over a decade in diagnostic, clinical, research and teaching work, including managing all sections of Pathology laboratory including histopathology, cytology, hematology and clinical Pathology.
Kelly Brown
Kelly Brown
Content Contributor
Kelly has experience working with clients in a variety of industries, including legal, medical, marketing, and travel. Her goal is to share important information that people can use to make decisions about their health and the health of their loved ones. From choosing the best treatment programs to improving dental and vision health to finding the best method for helping anyone who is struggling with health issues, she hopes to share what she learns through informative content.