You and your genes: how they affect your health

The 'nature nurture' argument has raged among scientists for hundreds of years, and it's not going to be settled any time soon. In fact, your genes and your lifestyle play an important role in whether or not you develop a host of medical conditions. Simple bad luck is important, too - but regardless of your genes, you can do a huge amount to stack the odds in your favour by keeping as healthy as you can.

It may be tempting to bury your head in the sand as far as inherited conditions are concerned. But, in fact, there are so many effective preventive treatments available today that identifying your particular risks means you can be treated to cut your chances or screened regularly to pick up problems early, when treatment is much more likely to be successful.

Breast cancer and the BRCA gene

About one in eight UK women get breast cancer, and most of these are not down to any genetic link. Survival rates are higher than ever - but prevention, as they say, is better than cure. Your family history may be the clue to your risk.

Two types of BRCA gene - BRCA1 and BRCA2 - can greatly increase your risk of cancer of the breast and ovaries.

Having one 'first-degree' relative - mother or sister - diagnosed with breast cancer should make you even more 'breast aware' but you won't necessarily need special treatment. But more than one close family member affected, especially at a young age (say, under 40) should ring alarm bells.

Until recently, women identified as being at high risk of breast cancer could either have more frequent screening or - like brave Angelina Jolie - have preventive surgery. Just a couple of years ago, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) announced that high-risk women could also opt to take five years of tamoxifen - a tablet used to stop breast cancer returning - as an alternative strategy.

Type 2 diabetes and you

In the UK, 90-95% of people with diabetes have type 2 diabetes. It's largely down to lifestyle - being overweight and not exercising greatly increase your risk. These lifestyle factors are largely under your control, but your family history isn't. Having type 2 diabetes in the family and being of South Asian origin both make you more likely to develop the condition. If this applies to you, ask your GP whether you need testing for diabetes

Heart attack - keeping it in the family

Over 90% of your chance of having a heart attack is down to risk factors you can change, including smoking, abdominal obesity (excess weight round your midriff), lack of exercise and not eating enough eating fruit and veg. High cholesterol is often down to your weight and diet, but dangerously high cholesterol can run in the family - a condition called familial hypercholesterolaemia, or FH. If you have a family history of premature heart attack (under 50 in a second-degree relative like uncle or aunt, or under 60 in a first-degree relative like brother, sister or parent) you should have your cholesterol tested. A simple blood test will tell you if you might have FH, which can be effectively treated.


About one in three women and one in five men will break a bone during their lives because of osteoporosis, or thinning of the bones. Bone strength is largely down to your genes. If one of your parents (especially your mother) broke a hip, or if you're a woman (particularly past the menopause) your risks are higher. People of Afro-Caribbean origin have stronger bones.

Non-inherited risk factors for osteoporosis include taking steroid tablets; being underweight; previously breaking bones after a minor fall; rheumatoid arthritis; inflammatory bowel disease; smoking and excess alcohol; and going through menopause before age 45. If any of these apply to you, speak to your doctor about whether you need a bone scan - there is effective medicine to protect your bones. Regular weight-bearing exercise and getting enough calcium and vitamin D in your diet can protect you.

Itchy sneezy wheezy!

If allergic conditions like eczema, asthma or hay fever run in your family, you're more likely to get one or more of them yourself as they're all closely linked.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Egton Medical Information Systems Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.