The risks of most diseases are contributed to, at least in part, by genes. Having a family history of a particular disease is often flagged as a risk factor to be aware of, with diseases like heart disease and some cancers.
Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS) is a type of study that targets the genetic causes of disease, using gene sequencing data to create maps of gene areas that affect disease risks. These studies have found that there are a range of genetic changes that can contribute to disease risk. Most diseases, however, are not solely a result of genetic alterations.
Lifestyle factors play a role in disease risk. This includes individual behaviours in addition to behaviours that come about as a result of an individual’s context. Family groups are one structure that’s common to many people. Aside from the immediate family, there are larger familial groups that include related family members like uncles, aunties and cousins. Although extended family gatherings may be few and far between, research has found that lifestyle factors and habits are much more closely linked between members of an extended family than they are between unrelated groups.
Researchers took a closer look at the roles of both genes and lifestyle in influencing risk of many diseases. Part of this involved looking at the connections between families and their lifestyles. They found that the types of lifestyles led by families played an important role in affecting risk. When this was taken into account, the impact of genes was overestimated by almost 50%.
It’s important to be aware of family history of any diseases and flag this with health professionals during consults. This research suggests that the way we live and who we live with is just as important as our genetic makeup. A good diet, adequate levels of physical activity and stress management are three important lifestyle factors that can promote healthy outcomes amongst families. Talk to your family doctor if you need more information on this matter.
Reference: Munoz, M et al. Evaluating the contribution of genetics and familial shared environment to common disease using the UK Biobank. Nature Genetics Epub online July 18, 2016. doi: 10.1038/ ng.3618.