Why hereditary health issues don't have to be a death sentence

Genetics are one thing we have (mostly) conceded we can’t change. We were born this way, and our family’s health problems have been passed down the line.

But do genetic issues have to be a death sentence? Not entirely.

If your dad died of heart disease, your mum has dementia and your grandmother had kidney disease, it’s important to know what this means for your own health risk, so it can be managed.

According to Professor Garry Jennings, the director of Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute, your blood pressure is the final result of a balance between your genes and lifestyle and it’s rarely just caused by one and not the other.

Science has told us that genetics not only pass down the chances of inheriting a health condition, but also lifestyle habits. This is why some families can have a cycle of obesity and the like.

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“There is a higher risk of having high blood pressure if a close relative has it,” Professor Jennings told the ABC.

But the world of genetics and their link to our health is quite complicated. While we often worry about what we will contract from our relatives, that doesn’t always have to be a bad thing. Resilience to disease can also be passed down.

How your mother carried you and what she did while you were in the womb is also something vital to know, as poor diet or smoking is likely to lead to high blood pressure – therefore even if no one in your family had hypertension, you could due to your mother’s habits.

Professor Jennings said, “we know that the poor maternal environment turns on some genes and turns off others, so environment and genes in this case are intimately related”.

So can you outsmart your predisposition to disease? Not always but the best way to stay on top of your health, particularly if there’s a history of a problem, is to see your doctor regularly.

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Lifestyle is also a factor and even if the odds are against you in the gene stakes, you still might be able to prevent disease and health decline simply by changing your lifestyle. That means cutting down on alcohol, avoid smoking, eating a nutritious diet, and exercising.

“These things, as well as avoiding salt and maintaining a healthy weight can all help counteract a genetic link,” he said.

Another misconception is that if you don’t have a family history of something, you don’t need to worry, but that isn’t true at all. Just because the females in your family have tested negative for breast cancer, doesn’t mean you will be given the all clear. Most cases of breast cancer are in fact not inherited – fewer than 5 per cent of all breast cancer is due to an identifiable genetic cause.


Tell us below, do you have a family history of a certain disease or health issue?