We all know things like hair, skin, and eye color are inherited traits we receive from our parents, but as it turns out, it’s not just the lack of coordination we can thank them for. Our biological inheritance can also contain a greater risk of certain health conditions. Often referred to as hereditary, genetic conditions aren’t as obvious as superficial traits we got from mom and dad—but deserve our attention as we age and have children of our own.
Genes contain the info that our bodies use to control growth, development, and function. So, no matter how healthy (or unhealthy) your lifestyle is, it’s the DNA of particular genes that can increase your likelihood or risk of inherited health conditions. In fact, according to the National Human Genome Research Institute, many diseases have an inherited component. One source estimates that six out of 10 people will be affected by a condition that has some genetic background. While diseases have many causes, “family history is often one of the strongest risk factors for common disease complexes,” according to the Institute of Medicine.
Let’s explore some of the many health conditions that run in families and how you can determine your genetic risk for some of them.
We all know someone who has been affected by breast cancer, as it is one of the most common types of cancer in the world. Breast cancer happens when certain cells in the breast become abnormal and multiply uncontrollably to form a tumor. According to the National Institutes of Health, one in eight women develop breast cancer in their lifetime, but only five to 10% of breast cancer cases are thought to be hereditary.
The most common cause of hereditary breast cancer is an inherited mutation in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene, which has gotten lots of press in the past decade. (See actress Angelina Jolie’s op-ed in the New York Times in 2013, after learning of her own BRCA1 gene mutation.) The facts are glaring, if you have inherited a mutated copy of either gene from a parent, you have a higher risk of breast cancer. On average, a woman with a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation has up to a 7 in 10 chance of getting breast cancer by age 80.
In the US, the most common genetic heart disease is Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy (HCM). According to the Mayo Clinic, HCM is “a disease in which the heart muscle becomes abnormally thick (hypertrophied). The thickened heart muscle can make it harder for the heart to pump blood.” Although it affects over a million people, it often goes undiagnosed.
It doesn’t seem fair that eating healthfully and exercising daily may not be enough to control high cholesterol. However, if you are one of the (unlucky) one out of 250 people with Familial Hypercholesterolemia (FH), diet and exercise may not be enough to manage high cholesterol levels. According to the NIH, “When the body is unable to get rid of extra cholesterol, it builds up in the blood. Too much cholesterol increases a person's risk of developing heart disease.” People who have FH are at a higher risk of developing coronary artery disease at a young age. Plaques can clog arteries, causing chest pain called angina and increasing the risk of a heart attack.
Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HH), aka iron overload disorder, is a disorder in which the body stores too much iron. “Excess iron is stored in the body's tissues and organs, particularly the skin, heart, liver, pancreas, and joints,” according to the NIH. If left untreated it can cause serious “organ damage and lead to a heart attack, diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, arthritis, depression, and premature death,” according to Winchester Hospital. The NIH lists early symptoms of hereditary hemochromatosis as “extreme tiredness (fatigue), joint pain, abdominal pain, weight loss, and loss of sex drive. As the condition worsens, affected individuals may develop arthritis, liver disease (cirrhosis) or liver cancer, diabetes, heart abnormalities, or skin discoloration.”
Humans weren’t necessarily meant to be able to digest lactose after infancy, which is why the majority of the population isn’t able to. Per the NIH, “Approximately 65 percent of the human population has a reduced ability to digest lactose after infancy.” Lactose-intolerant individuals may experience abdominal pain, bloating, flatulence, nausea, and diarrhea anywhere from half an hour to a couple of hours after consuming lactose-containing dairy products. Sometimes cheese or yogurt won’t cause this kind of reaction since the fermentation process breaks down much of the lactose in milk.
You could have an aneurysm in your aorta and not even know it. It can be completely asymptomatic until there is a catastrophic event. The aorta is the body’s largest blood vessel and an aneurysm is a weak spot that bulges out from the wall of the aorta. The aorta leads from your heart to your legs, passing through the lower abdomen on its way, where it branches out into two arteries, one for each leg. When an aneurysm happens in the abdomen it’s an abdominal aortic aneurysm, but if it happens in the chest, it’s referred to as a thoracic aortic aneurysm.
If your grandma wore compression socks, you may need a pair someday too. Factor V Leiden is the name of the specific gene mutation that results in Hereditary Thrombophilia. Thrombophilia is just a fancy word for “an increased tendency to form abnormal blood clots that can block blood vessels,” as defined by the NIH. If you're at higher risk for abnormal blood clots, you may need to avoid situations that might increase your risk even more, like long car rides, birth control, or surgeries. According to the CDC, “risk factors, such as surgery, hospitalization, pregnancy, cancer, and some types of cancer treatments” make a blood clot occurrence more likely.
Don’t worry, we’re not informing you of all the possibilities lurking in your genes without providing insight and education on how to determine some of your risk factors. For years, these kinds of tests weren’t readily available to the masses, with the ability to test right from your own home! Ancestry.com —yes, the same company that helped grow your family tree—now offers AncestryDNA® kits that go way beyond genealogy.
Genetic tests look for specific changes in chromosomes, DNA, or proteins that increase your risk of developing particular diseases and health conditions. AncestryHealth® DNA tests assess your inherited health risks for certain cancers, heart and blood health, carrier status, and wellness. What started as a fun exercise that revealed your genealogical origins is now just the icing on the cake.
AncestryHealth® uses next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology to transform the DNA in your saliva into important, yet easy to understand genetic information. It’s hard to overstate how powerful and potentially life-changing it is to unlock medical unknowns from your family history like never before. Find out if you are at risk for commonly inherited conditions linked to health concerns such as breast cancer, colon cancer, heart disease, and more. Simply order your AncestryHealth® DNA kit and a simple saliva test will arrive in the mail. Return your sample with the prepaid label. CLIA-certified lab technicians then test your spit and spit out your results within a couple of months.
One thing to keep in mind—while we love that the service is direct-to-consumer (DTC), genetic tests have not been approved by the FDA to diagnose or treat a disease or health condition and cannot determine your overall chance of developing one. Get a jump start on your medical journey with AncestryHealth, but always consult a healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet, lifestyle, or treatment. AncestryHealth® is not currently available in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Guam.
As previously mentioned, knowing whether you are at risk for certain conditions or diseases allows you to take steps to reduce your risk. This may include more frequent screenings or earlier screenings or testing for a medical condition that has been shown to run in the family. Additionally, lifestyle changes may be in order. For example, those who are at a higher risk for heart disease may decide to stop smoking, start exercising, and eat healthier. If you have a higher risk of aortic problems, you might check your blood pressure regularly, avoid competitive sports, and see if it can be solved with surgery.
Knowing your risk of inherited health conditions is a crucial first step and isn’t something to be put off until middle age. Learn how your genes may influence your overall health with AncestryHealth® and harness the power of a healthier future for you and your family.