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Dr. Kevin Dalby Explains How Not to Let Your Genes Control Your Health

Originally published on

Many people fear a genetic predisposition to certain diseases, mainly when those diseases run in their family. Knowing their family health history is invaluable because it enables them to alter other health-related factors in their lives and mitigate genetic risk. Here, UT-Austin Professor Kevin Dalby takes a closer look at how not to let your genes control your health.

A genetic predisposition, or genetic susceptibility, describes an increased probability of a person’s genetic makeup contributing to a disease’s development. Genetic susceptibility occurs because of specific genetic variations that can be inherited from a parent. These genetic anomalies contribute to the development of a disease but do not cause it. Some people with a genetic mutation, will never get the disease, while others, even with the same parents, will.

Many people share DNA with parents with a health history that includes at least one severe disease, such as heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. This inherited DNA may mean they have a genetic predisposition to develop one of those diseases, especially if a family member developed that disease at an unusually young age. Other indicators, especially for the various types of cancer, include multiple types of cancer in the same family member, multiple organs affected by cancer, and more than one family member that have developed cancer.

Medical science has made extraordinary advancements in identifying critical areas of genetic variation and establishing connections between particular genes and disease. These advancements make accurate and timely family health history reporting essential. It is vital to ensure that health history records are kept updated. If a person learns that a close family member develops a disease, they should update the record maintained by their doctor. In some cases, a family member’s illness may indicate a need for immediate screening tests for other relatives.

Genetic susceptibility extends beyond DNA because families share more than just genetics. People that live with each other share other health-influencing factors. It is common to see family members adopt similar exercise and eating habits. Health-related environmental factors, such as tobacco use, particularly second-hand smoke, can affect multiple generations living in the same household.

People can not change their genes, but they can avoid unhealthy behaviors, such as smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor eating habits. Individuals with a genetic susceptibility toward one or more diseases have the most to gain from a healthy lifestyle that includes prompt and regular health screening tests. Blood sugar tests, mammograms, colorectal cancer screens, and other tests will enable early detection and improve the possibility of a successful outcome if the disease develops.

People with a family health history that indicates a genetic predisposition to certain diseases need not resign themselves to a life of poor health. However, genetic susceptibility should be recognized as a warning that the risk of developing a disease may be higher. Along with the increased risk comes a need to exercise additional care.

If someone has a parent and a sibling who develops the same disease, they should ensure that their doctor knows the family health history. They should pay special attention to their doctor’s directions about screening tests and avoid contributing factors in their lifestyle.

About Kevin Dalby

Dr. Kevin Dalby is a UT-Austin medicinal chemistry professor. He is researching the mechanisms of cancer cell signaling to develop targeted therapeutics. Dr. Dalby’s efforts were recognized by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) and the National Institutes of Health, granting him nearly $5 million to support his research.