Myth Busting: Genetics and Your Health

Last week, we explored the myth that personalized healthcare offers doctors a “crystal ball” to predict your future health. This week, I want to talk about another big myth about our field — the idea that you can’t improve your health because your genetics are predetermined.

Myth: Personalized healthcare doesn’t work because I can’t change my genetics

If you have been reading this blog, by now you probably understand that there is much more to personalized healthcare than just genetic testing for disease. However, genetic testing is still an important part of what we do.

Some people are hesitant to participate in genetic testing because they do not want to know if they are at risk for certain diseases. Here’s the thinking: There is nothing I can do about my health based on the results of these genetic tests. Fortunately, this is not true!

In many diseases, genetics is just one of many contributing factors. Just because heart disease runs in your family doesn’t mean you have to suffer from it. You can take measures to ensure that your heart is as healthy as possible by practicing such things as good nutrition and regular exercise. Now, I’m not saying that if you have a healthy lifestyle, you will not develop diseases such as heart disease. Striving to lead a healthy lifestyle, however, will put you in a much better position to avoid disease.

There are also more direct ways of preventing diseases from developing. Prophylactic, or preventive, surgery is one way patients can take control before inherited disease develops. For example, if breast cancer runs in your family and you are positive for the BRCA gene mutation, your likelihood of developing breast cancer is very high. You might decide to have what is called a prophylactic mastectomy. This is a preventative surgery intended to remove breast tissue before breast cancer has a chance to develop.

Not all preventative measures are as extreme as surgery. Knowing your risk for developing disease may encourage you to follow your doctor’s suggestions regarding the following:

  • Nutrition. There is no doubt that what you eat affects your general health, but doctors and registered dietitians also can recommend specific diets for certain conditions.
  • Exercise and fitness. Think of the heart disease example mentioned above. Getting the right kind of exercise can go a long way toward keeping your heart healthy, even if it’s only one of many factors.
  • Screening tests. Important tests, such as mammograms and colonoscopies, too often go unused because of fear or embarrassment. But knowing that you might be at a higher risk for breast or colon cancer means you should comply with recommended screening guidelines. They may save your life.

Just remember, genetics is only a part of the story — the rest is up to you!

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