How Much is in Your Genes?

You can head off the risks of cardiovascular disease, cancer or Type 2 diabetes by checking out your family medical history and changing a few basic habits.

Just keep in mind that while your family’s medical history plays a role in your health, it’s a mistake to think it dominates.

“There’s a perception that genes are a major driver of cancer, but they’re not,” says Dr Andrew Penman, CEO of The Cancer Council NSW. “Genetic factors account for less than 4% or 5% of all cancers.

It’s appropriate to recognise the possibility of familial cancer, but it’s important to understand that for the average person it is environmental factors that drive cancers, and modifying those risk factors is the way to reduce your cancer risk.”

The same can be said about cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Type 2 diabetes


Type 2 diabetes is a metabolic disease that develops when the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or the insulin doesn’t work effectively. It represents 85-90% of all cases of diabetes. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, about 1.9 milllion Canadians have been diagnosed with diabetes and a lage number of people have the disease but remain undiagnosed.


Anyone with a parent or sibling with type 2 has a 10-15% higher risk of developing it. If that sibling is an identical twin, the risk is closer to 90%.


People at risk can delay or prevent type 2 diabetes by exercising regularly, eating healthily and not gaining excess weight. Risk factors include being overweight, low levels of activity, high blood pressure, unhealthy eating habits, smoking and high cholesterol.



The Canadian Cancer Society reported that one in two Canadian men will receive a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime; for women the odds are one in three.


Most people are born with two correct copies of each “cancer protection” gene. A mutation will leave you with a predisposition to cancer. Only 4-5% of cancers are directly related to genetic glitches.


Currently, many of the cancer diagnosis each year are attributable to smoking, sun exposure, poor diet, excessive alcohol, inadequate exercise or being overweight. So stop smoking, be sun smart, move your body, avoid too much alcohol, eat healthily, have regular screenings and see your doctor if you notice unusual changes to your body or health.

Cardiovascular disease


According to Statistics Canada, cardiovascular disease (heart, stroke and blood vessel disease) claims about 72,000 Canadian lives a year. To put it another way, that’s around one in three of all deaths. More than 3.5 million Australians are currently affected by the condition.


If you have two siblings or other first-degree relatives who had a heart attack by age 55 in men and 65 in women, your risk of a heart attack is about ten times that of the general population. But lifestyle habits such as poor diet, low levels of exercise and smoking usually contribute to the onset of the disease.


Don’t smoke. Do eat healthily, exercise, control high blood pressure, keep your weight in check and monitor your cholesterol levels. If you or a family member have suffered a stroke or heart attack before age 60 or have high cholesterol, ask your doctor about assessing your risk.

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