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5 Health Issues That are Genetically Passed Down. Do You Have One?

Learn about five disorders that are genetically passed down. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Genetic diseases are a common occurrence that happens when, "A mutation (a harmful change to a gene, also known as a pathogenic variant) affects your genes or when you have the wrong amount of genetic material, the Cleveland Clinic states and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Thousands of inherited genetic disorders affect millions of people in the United States." There's two main types of genetic disorders: single-gene and chromosomal and the Cleveland Clinic explains, "You receive half your genes from each biological parent and may inherit a gene mutation from one parent or both. Sometimes genes change due to issues within the DNA (mutations). This can raise your risk of having a genetic disorder. Some cause symptoms at birth, while others develop over time." Eat This, Not That! Heath spoke with Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies who shares why knowing your genetic makeup is important and five disorders that can be passed down. Read on—and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had COVID.


Why Knowing Your Genetics is Important

happy family on couch

Dr. Mitchell states, "Knowledge is power, and when choosing a partner for life, it is essential to be as informed as possible. After all, you want your future children to inherit the best likely traits from both parents. While beauty and wealth may be necessary to some, it is also essential to consider other factors, such as intelligence and family history. Studies have shown that genetic factors largely determine intelligence, so it may be worth investigating their family tree if you are looking for a smart partner. Similarly, certain medical conditions can also be passed down through the generations, so if you have a history of cardiovascular disease or mental illness in your family, you may want to choose a partner who does not share that same history. Of course, ultimately, the decision is up to you, but it is always helpful to be as informed as possible before making such an important decision. Here are five of the many genetic conditions that can be passed down."


Cystic Fibrosis

man using asthma machine at home.

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a progressive genetic disease that causes persistent lung infections and limits the ability to breathe over time. In people with CF, a defective gene causes the body to produce unusually thick and sticky mucus that builds up in the lungs and clogs the airways. The thick mucus traps bacteria and leads to chronic inflammation, persistent lung infections, and progressive damage to the lungs. In addition, the sticky mucus also affects the pancreas and other organs in the body, preventing them from working properly. As a result, people with CF often experience abdominal pain, poor growth, and malnutrition.

The disease is caused by a mutation in the cystic fibrosis gene, and children need to inherit one copy of the mutated gene from each parent to develop the disease. If children inherit only one copy of the mutated gene, they will not develop cystic fibrosis, but they will be carriers of the disease and could pass the gene to their own children. Cystic fibrosis is most common in North Europeans, and family history is the biggest risk factor for the disease. There is no cure for cystic fibrosis, but treatments are available to help improve quality of life and extend life expectancy.

Fortunately, since 2010, it has been mandatory that all 50 states offer cystic fibrosis screening in the newborn stage, for which Connecticut and Texas were the last states to mandate the screening."


Sickle Cell Anemia

Doctor checking patient for anemia symptoms

"Sickle cell anemia is anemia in which there are not enough healthy red blood cells to carry oxygen throughout the body," Dr. Mitchell says. "This can cause various symptoms, including fatigue, shortness of breath, and pain. The condition is most common among people of African descent, but it can also affect people from other groups, including Hispanics, Arabs, Greeks, Italians, and Turks. Sickle cell anemia is caused by a mutation in the hemoglobin gene. When someone with this mutation has a child with someone who does not have the mutation, there is a 25% chance that the child will have sickle cell anemia. There is no cure for sickle cell anemia, but treatments are available to manage the symptoms. It is essential to be aware of sickle cell anemia if you have it in your family history or if you are considering having children with someone who has it in their family history. The condition can be passed onto future generations, so it is essential to be informed about the risks involved.

Sickle cell is so prevalent in certain countries worldwide that couples are required to get tested for sickle cell before getting married."


Huntington's' Disease

Portrait of stern looking doctor.

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Huntington's disease is a progressive brain disorder that causes uncontrolled movements, emotional problems, and loss of thinking ability (cognition). Huntington's disease is also known as Huntington's chorea. It is passed down from parents to children through a mutation in a single gene. The disease usually begins in middle age but can appear earlier or much later in life. Huntington's disease is fatal, and currently, there is no cure. Treatment focuses on relieving symptoms and improving quality of life. 

Huntington's disease affects people differently, so symptoms can range from mild to severe. They often develop slowly over time and get worse as the disease progresses. Early symptoms may include irritability, mood swings, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. As the disease progresses, patients may experience involuntary movements (chorea), problems with speech and swallowing, impaired reasoning and judgment, and dementia. Ultimately, Huntington's disease can lead to complete physical and mental disability. 

Huntington's disease is caused by a mutation in the HTT gene. This gene provides instructions for making a protein called huntingtin. In people with Huntington's disease, the HTT gene contains a repeating sequence of Genetic codes (CAG). Repeats in this sequence abnormally increased in size. As a result, it produces an altered form of the huntingtin protein. This defective protein accumulates in brain nerve cells, interfering with normal nerve function and leading to cell death. The death of these cells leads to the physical and mental deterioration seen in Huntington's disease. 

A diagnosis of Huntington's disease is usually made based on the results of a physical examination and neurological assessment, along with family history and genetic testing. No one test can definitively diagnose Huntington's disease. However, genetic testing can confirm the diagnosis if the person has a family history of the disorder or if they are at risk of inheriting the mutated gene. 

There is no cure for Huntington's disease, but treatments are available to help manage symptoms and improve quality of life. Medications can help involuntary control movements (chorea), relieve depression and anxiety, and improve sleep problems. Physical, occupational, and speech therapy can help patients maintain their abilities and independence for as long as possible.

This condition can be debilitating, and due to the dominant nature of inheritance, you only need to inherit one abnormal gene from your parents to have this condition."


Marfan Syndrome

Cardiac diagnosis of Marfan Syndrome

According to Dr. Mitchell, "Marfan syndrome is a genetic condition that affects connective tissue. Connective tissue supports the body and organs and helps hold them in place. Marfan syndrome can damage the blood vessels, heart, eyes, skin, lungs, and the bones of the hips, spine, feet, and rib cage. This can lead to various complications, including heart disease, bone deformities such as a curved spine, eye conditions such as cataracts or glaucoma, and lung or skin problems. Some of these complications can be treated or prevented with medication or surgery. People with Marfan syndrome also need to be monitored closely by a doctor to detect any problems early. With proper treatment and monitoring, people with Marfan syndrome can live long and healthy lives.

Most people with Marfan syndrome inherit the defective gene from a parent with the disorder. Each child of an affected parent has a 50-50 chance of inheriting the defective gene. In about 25% of cases, neither parent has the disorder, and a new mutation develops spontaneously."


Breast Cancer

breast cancer

"A small percentage of breast cancers are thought to be hereditary, caused by abnormal genes passed from parent to child," Dr. Mitchell explains. "In most cases, the abnormal gene is passed down from the mother. These abnormal genes can cause a woman to risk developing breast cancer at an early age. Two different types of abnormal genes can be passed down: BRCA1 and BRCA2. Women with either of these genes have about a 60% chance of developing breast cancer at some point in their lives. The risk is even higher for women who have both genes. There are several things that women with these genes can do to lower their risk of developing breast cancer, including having regular mammograms, staying physically active, and avoiding alcohol.

If you have a family history of breast cancer, it might be important to know if you carry the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes."

Dr. Mitchell says this "doesn't constitute medical advice and by no means are these answers meant to be comprehensive. Rather, it's to encourage discussions about health choices."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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