It Runs in My Family

Looks aren’t the only thing about genes that’s important. There are some diseases that scientists have linked to genes. If the chromosomes that a parent passes to a child have a gene mutation that causes disease, then that child will have more risk for getting the disease. If both parents pass on the mutation, the risk goes up more. About 4,000 diseases have been linked to gene mutations.

But, here is what really matters. Ready?

Just having a certain gene doesn’t cause disease. Most (maybe all) diseases are caused by a complicated mix of factors that include genes, as well as environment, and behavior. For some diseases, genes play a bigger role, and we have less control over whether a person gets sick (like cystic fibrosis and sickle cell anemia). For others, we can very much control or even prevent the disease by our behavior—like some forms of heart disease and some cancers.

What does that mean to you? It means, you can’t control your genes, but you can control how you take care of yourself.

No matter who you are, here are my best two pieces of advice:

1. Follow the basics of good health. You know ’em.

  • Eat healthy,
  • Get plenty of physical activity,
  • Get plenty of sleep,
  • Avoid the bad stuff like cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs,
  • Get a doctor’s checkup each year.

2. Learn as much as you can about your family health history. This history will give you (and your doctor) signals about what you should watch out for. But, it doesn’t let you off the hook. Like, even if you have no heart disease in your family…if you eat too much greasy food, smoke cigarettes, and never get exercise, you’re still at high risk for a heart attack. Family health history is so important that the U.S. Surgeon General has come up with some toolsExternal that can help you keep track of yours.