In honor of today being world health day, let’s talk about your health! More specifically, your genetic health. When we talk about genetic health, we are looking at a person’s genetic makeup, their DNA, to determine if any changes exist that would cause a disorder to occur. Sometimes, these genetic changes will cause a condition to manifest in utero or at birth. However, there are a number of disorders that have a hereditary and environmental component. These are called multifactorial conditions.
Let’s use a hypothetical patient to illustrate this concept. Patient Mandy Jones has a pretty big family with several relatively common conditions. On her dad’s side, a few of her uncles have heart disease and her paternal grandfather passed away at the age of 52 from a heart attack. Mandy's mom has been clinically diagnosed with anxiety and her maternal grandfather had schizophrenia. She also has a maternal cousin who takes medication to help treat her depression. Mandy has a couple siblings all of which are doing well health-wise, except her 28 year old sister who was recently diagnosed with type I diabetes. And lastly, Mandy has rheumatoid arthritis that is pretty well managed by her current prescription.
Family Pedigree for Mandy Jones
All of the conditions mentioned in Mandy's family are what we call multifactorial, or a combination of genetic and environmental factors. So while we opened this story of Mandy Jones’ family with a focus on their “genetic health,” the reality is that there is almost always an interaction between the genes of our bodies and the environments we live in and our behaviors within those environments. And while we have no control over what genes are passed on from generation to generation, we can control our lifestyle and the environmental influences that interact with our genes.
With this in mind, we can offer Mandy a breakdown of some of the environmental and behavioral stressors that can have important and particularly negative impacts on the multifactorial conditions, one by one:
Heart disease – Poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking
Diabetes – Poor diet and lack of exercise
Psychiatric disease – Stress, drug abuse, drinking
Autoimmune disease – Poor diet, lack of exercise, not getting enough sleep, too much stress, sun exposure, not enough vitamin supplements
So when thinking about your family and your health, it’s always a good idea to make sure to take care of yourself. It can be particularly important when we are susceptible to conditions because of our genetic histories. This can become the difference between developing one of these conditions or not. Eating healthy, reducing stress and getting exercise are often the first steps to not following in your family's health footsteps!
The more you know about the full picture, the better decisions you can make about managing your own health.