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What Diseases Run in Your Family
Updated on September 13, 2023
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What Diseases Run in Your Family

If your family has a history of conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease, or diabetes, you might have a higher risk of getting them.

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.

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


Certain health conditions can be more common in families because of shared genes and medical histories. While it can put a person at a higher risk, it's not absolute.

Eating healthy, working out regularly, and talking to a doctor can help lower your risk. Genetic testing can also provide more information.

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.

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.

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

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

  • Cystic Fibrosis
  • Down syndrome
  • Fragile X syndrome
  • Inherited Clotting Problems
  • Familial combined hyperlipidemia and Familial hypercholesterolemia
  • Huntington's disease
  • Duchenne muscular dystrophy
  • Becker muscular dystrophy
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Thalassemia
  • PKU 
What Diseases Run in Your Family 2


There are four different types of genetic disorders. These are single-gene mutations, multiple-gene mutations, chromosomal changes, and mitochondrial mutations. Mutations can be due to random errors during cell division or exposure to DNA-damaging agents.

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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 an 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.


Environmental risks in families come from shared behaviors and living conditions. If you avoid these risks, you can decrease your chances of getting a disease, even if it runs in the family.

Genetic and Environmental Risks of Disease

You're more likely to develop a disease if you have both a genetic and 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.

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

Discussing your family’s health history with your doctor is also important. Together, you can create a screening process that catches diseases in the family early.

Let’s look at a woman with an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

Her mother and grandmother had ovarian cancer, so her risk is significantly higher.

She understands this and implements a healthy lifestyle to counteract her risk factors.

She eats a healthy diet, maintains a healthy weight, and stays active. 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. But she’s managing the risk as much as possible. And if she develops the disease, doctors will identify it early, making it highly treatable.

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

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 and environmental risks can make you more vulnerable to the disease, but there’s still a chance you might not get it. You can minimize risk by making healthy choices.

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.


Sometimes, lifestyle changes won't affect your risk of getting a genetic disease. In such cases, genetic testing can determine if you are at a higher risk and can pass the disease to your children.

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.

But is knowing your family’s health history right for you?

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.


If you want to know more about the genetic risks that run in your family, talking to your doctor is an excellent place to start. Using at-home genetic testing is an affordable option. While this can be an emotional journey, there’s power in knowing.

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Updated on September 13, 2023
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2 sources cited
Updated on September 13, 2023
  1. What Is a Gene Mutation?” Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
  2. Single-Gene Disorders.” Genetic Alliance.
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 Jamrozy
Kelly Jamrozy
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.
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