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Genetic Alliance. A Guide to Genetics and Health. Washington (DC): Genetic Alliance; 2006.

Cover of A Guide to Genetics and Health

A Guide to Genetics and Health.

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Why is genetics important to my family and me?

Genetics helps to explain:

  • What makes you unique, or one of a kind
  • Why family members look alike
  • Why some diseases like diabetes or cancer run in families
  • How learning your family health history can help you stay healthy
  • Why you should bring your family health history to your healthcare provider

Taking time to learn about health and diseases that run in your family is worth it! It will help you understand your own health and make healthy choices.

What makes me unique?

Every person is unique. Part of what makes you unique is your genes. Genes are the instructions inside each of your cells. They control how you look and how your body works. Since everyone has slightly different genes, everyone has a different set of instructions. Genes are one reason why you are unique!

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Tell me more about my genes

  • A person has two copies of each gene, one from the mother and one from the father.
  • Genes carry instructions that tell your cells how to work and grow.
  • Cells are the building blocks of the body. Every part of your body is made up of billions of cells working together.
  • Genes are arranged in structures called chromosomes. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes. Copies of the chromosomes are found in each cell.
  • Chromosomes are made up of DNA. DNA is the special code in which the instructions in your genes are written.

Why do family members have things in common?

Children inherit pairs of genes from their parents. A child gets one set of genes from the father and one set from the mother. These genes can match up in many ways to make different combinations. This is why many family members look a lot alike and others don’t look like each other at all. Genes can also increase the risk in a family for getting certain health conditions.

Families also share habits, diet, and environment. These influence how healthy we are later in life.

You share a lot with your family—including what can make you sick.

Why do some diseases run in families?

Some diseases are caused when there is a change in the instructions in a gene. This is called a mutation. Every person has many mutations. Sometimes these changes have no effect or are even slightly helpful. But sometimes they can cause disease.

Most common diseases are caused by a combination of mutations, lifestyle choices, and your environment. Even people with similar genes may or may not get an illness if they make different choices or live in a different environment.

Thousands of diseases are caused by a specific change in the DNA of a single gene. Many of these diseases are rare. These conditions usually develop when an individual is born with a mutated gene.

If a rare disease runs in your family, be sure to write it down. Do not forget to learn about common conditions that affect your family’s health.

Visit page 10 to learn about some diseases that run in families.

Common Disease: Diabetes

Changes in your genes passed on by your parents may make you more likely to develop type 2 diabetes. If you are active and eat a healthy diet, you may be able to lower your risk.

Single Gene Disorder: Sickle Cell Anemia

Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in a single gene passed from each parent.

How can family health history help me stay healthy?

Your family health history tells you which diseases run in your family. Health problems that develop at a younger age than usual can be a clue that your family has a higher risk. Though you cannot change your genes, you can change your behavior.

Knowing your family health history will help you:

  • Identify risks due to shared genes.
  • Understand better what lifestyle and environmental factors you share with your family.
  • Understand how healthy lifestyle choices can reduce your risk of developing a disease.
  • Talk to your family about your health.
  • Tell your healthcare provider about the diseases that run in your family.

Remember

1.

Share your family health history with your healthcare provider.

2.

Ask if you can be screened for a disease that runs in your family.

Why should I bring my family health history to my healthcare provider?

Your healthcare provider (doctor, nurse, or physician’s assistant) may use your family health history and current health to figure out your risk for developing a disease. Your provider can then help decide which screenings you get and which medicines you might take.

Based on your family health history, a healthcare provider may order a genetic test or refer you to a genetic counselor or geneticist. Genetic tests can show if you have a gene change that increases your risk for disease. They can also tell if you have a gene change that you might pass on to your children. Your healthcare provider can help you:

  • Understand the results of your tests.
  • Learn of any treatments for a disease found by the test.

All newborn babies born in the U.S. and many other countries are tested for certain genetic diseases that may make them sick. This is called newborn screening. If the screening test finds a problem, a healthcare provider will help you understand what can be done to help the baby.

Copyright Notice

All Genetic Alliance content, except where otherwise noted, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

Bookshelf ID: NBK115604

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