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How Your Family’s Lifestyle May Impact Your Health

October 25, 2016

It’s a widely held belief that genes play a role in a person’s risk for disease. If many members of your immediate family have breast cancer, you may have an increased risk for the disease. If the men in your family all suffered their first heart attack in their 50s, you may be more susceptible to heart issues in middle age, as well.

Though family history and genetics factor into your health, a new study indicates something else may explain why certain diseases run in families: lifestyle.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and MRC Human Genetics Unit examined the medical histories of more than 500,000 people and their families. The data came from the UK Biobank, a database filled with information from volunteers who agreed to participate in a study that examines nature and nurture’s impact on health and disease. The data involved in the study also included the medical histories of participants’ blood and adoptive relatives, which likely helped researchers parse whether factors aside from genetics were at play.

The study’s authors focused on 12 common diseases, including different cancers and neurological diseases, high blood pressure and heart disease.

“The huge UK Biobank study allowed us to obtain very precise estimates of the role of genetics in these important diseases. It also identified those diseases where the shared family environment is important, such as heart disease, hypertension and depression, and also equally interestingly those where family environment is of limited or no apparent importance, such as dementia, stroke and Parkinson’s disease,” said Chris Haley, a professor at the university and a group leader in its MRC Human Genetics Unit.

The study found that scientists might overestimate the importance of genetic factors by 47 percent when lifestyle factors also aren’t taken into account.

We’ve always hammered home the point that lifestyle plays a significant role in an individual’s disease risk, but when it comes to families we don’t always give equal weight to these non-genetic factors. However, this study shows the importance of doing so. You learn important life skills from family members, such as cooking, eating habits and hygiene. Parents who demonstrate negative habits, especially with diet and nutrition, will have children who have a harder time breaking those habits compared to parents who set their children up for success in the beginning.

While genes do play a part in health conditions such as heart disease and obesity, learned behaviors like eating and exercise also have a role. This study shows that lifestyle factors are part of the equation, but we still don’t yet understand to what degree these things impact family disease risk. However, the study does highlight the limits of genetic testing when it comes to assessing this risk and shows that we in the medical community need to take a closer look at environmental factors, as well. By doing this, we can more precisely assess a person’s risk for disease and give patients better guidance for how to lower their risk and stay healthy.

You can take steps today to begin making healthier choices. Making an appointment with a registered dietician or getting a membership with a local gym are both excellent places to start. You can also make an appointment to meet with me during a shared medical appointment, which will allow you to meet with team members from multiple different specialties at once. Choose Orlando Health to help you on your healthy living lifestyle journey.