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What Diseases Run in Your Family

Updated on June 22, 2022
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What Diseases Run in Your Family

Some diseases “run in families,” but what does this mean?

If your mother, father, or another relative develops a disease, does this guarantee you or your children will develop the same thing?

Understanding your family health history helps you evaluate your risks.

Why do some diseases run in families and is there anything you can do if you are at risk for something?

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

There are several reasons why something might run in families, including:

  • Gene variations/mutations
  • Environmental factors
  • Combination of genetic and environmental factors

There are also four different types of genetic disorders including:

Single-gene Gene Mutations

These occur when there are variations (or mutations) in the DNA sequence of one specific gene. This affects the product that the gene codes for, causing alterations or absences. The features of each disorder are related to the specific affected gene and the job of that gene.

Multiple Genes Mutations

These occur when the variations in the DNA sequence affect multiple genes.

Chromosomal Changes

These occur when entire areas of the chromosome can be missing or misplaced.

Mitochondrial Mutations 

These occur when the maternal genetic material in mitochondria mutates.

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

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

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

Environmental Risks that Run in Families

If your risk is purely environmental, you can make changes that will reduce your risk. You might not eliminate your risk, but you can reduce it a great deal.

In this case, your risk is not genetic. However, the disease might tend to run in your family because more than one person in your family 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, giving you an elevated 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 less of a chance of developing the disease despite your original environmental risk.

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Genetic and Environmental Risks of Disease

Finally, if you have both a genetic and environmental risk for something, you’re in the middle. You can do things to reduce your risk, but you’re still someone with a higher risk for whatever the disease is.

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

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

Let’s take a look at a woman who has an increased risk of developing ovarian cancer.

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

She’s aware of 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 still 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 extremely treatable.

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

Understanding your genetic risk for medical conditions that run in the family helps you manage your health and take control of the situation as much as you possibly can. 

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. 

Genetic Issues without a Lifestyle Component

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

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

These types of 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 determine if they want to have biological children due to 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 along to their potential 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. He or she can suggest genetic testing to screen for issues that are of greatest concern.

Some at-home 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 how your family’s health history really right for you?

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.

However, knowing your health risks isn’t always a positive thing for some people.

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 if it’s bad news.

Others would prefer to not 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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Resources

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  1. What Is a Gene Mutation?” Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, 24 Sept. 2019, blog.dana-farber.org/insight/2019/09/what-is-a-gene-mutation/.
  2. Genetic Alliance, and District of Columbia Department of Health. “Single-Gene Disorders.” Nih.gov, Genetic Alliance, 17 Feb. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK132154/.
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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