Good Health Habits May Prevent Familial Health Risks

By Sherry Baker and Temma Ehrenfeld @SherryNewsViews
July 27, 2023
Good Health Habits May Prevent Familial Health Risks

Do you feel doomed to depression, high blood pressure, or heart disease? Your habits may have more to do with your health problems than your family history.

Genes are units of information, stored in each of your cells, that you receive from your parents. They determine whether you have light or dark eyes or inherited diseases such as cystic fibrosis and muscular dystrophy.

But they may not rule the day when it comes to heart disease and other health issues. 

Most illnesses arise from the combined effect of genes and your environment, including your behavior. Your habits, which also tend to run in families, often play the more decisive role.

Scientists may have overestimated the role of genes, according to a large study that pinned down their impact in a group of common illnesses.


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The researchers concluded that high blood pressure, depression, and heart disease run in families primarily because of shared habits.

The scientists drew upon data from a huge database, the UK Biobank, an international project helping researchers search for the causes of: 

The UK Biobank is a repository of blood, urine, and saliva samples collected from half a million volunteers who also have provided information about themselves and agreed to have their health followed.

Along with the data from the Biobank volunteers, the researchers studied the medical histories of relatives of the volunteers — which together added up to records for more than 1.5 million residents in the United Kingdom.

The data “allowed us to obtain very precise estimates of the role of genetics,” said lead researcher Chris Hayley, PhD,  of the University of Edinburgh's Roslin Institute and MRC Human Genetics Unit

The research showed that the impact of genes in several illnesses has been overestimated by about 50 percent. Genes seemed most decisive in Parkinson’s disease and dementia, however.

Overall, the conclusions can help you feel empowered to avoid health problems you may have seen in your parents and other relatives. Your choices and circumstances make a difference.

In follow-up research, Haley looked at whether obesity was more common in parts of Scotland because of behavior or genes. Behavior had more of a factor.

Some 400 genes seem to contribute to anyone’s weight, although only a few have the most influence. They affect:

  • Your appetite
  • How full you feel
  • Whether you crave certain foods
  • Where your body stores fat
  • Whether you eat to deal with stress

The power of genes affecting weight varies dramatically among people, research suggests.

You are likely fighting a genetic tendency if you have been overweight for much of your life, one or both of your parents or several blood relatives are heavy, and you don’t lose weight even when you eat less and exercise more. Those might be good reasons to consider medication or weight-loss surgery.

If you are somewhat overweight, and your weight goes up and down depending on your habits, you probably have some genetic tendency to gain weight, but you can overcome it. You may also be able to maintain weight loss.

The same logic applies to other illnesses. Your genetic tendency may be beatable, if you address factors contributing to the illness like smoking or lack of sleep or exercise.

If a disease runs in your family, make the most of screening tests like blood glucose tests for diabetes, mammograms, and colonoscopies. You can catch illness early and possibly avoid it altogether with good health habits.

On the other hand, don’t beat yourself up if your genetic tendency is strong. That’s a reason to take all the help doctors offer.

For more information, visit the CDC’s Family History and Chronic Disease page.


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July 27, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA and Janet O'Dell, RN