Over the past 20 years, hundreds of diseases have been linked to mutations in certain genes. A growing number of these mutant genes can now be detected via a simple blood test.
How much influence does your genetic makeup have over your health? What can you do if a hereditary ailment runs in your family? Who should undergo genetic testing.
For the answers to these and other questions, we spoke with Yale genetic counselor Ellen Matloff...
*To what extent is illness determined by "bad" genes? We shouldn't really call these genes "bad." We all have genetic mutations. Each of us is probably predisposed to at least one disease...whether it's cancer, heart disease, high cholesterol or a blood disorder.
Having a mutation that has been linked to a specific illness doesn't guarantee that you'll develop that illness. It just means you're at high risk.
In many cases, you can minimize the risk by adopting a healthy lifestyle...and by keeping an especially close watch on your health.
With some genetic defects, including those causing certain types of thyroid and colon cancer, risk of developing the disease in question can be close to 100%. That means anyone with the mutant gene who lives to age 85 is almost certain to develop the cancer unless the organ is removed...no matter what other preventive measures are taken.
With other mutant genes, the risk is less certain. If you have one of the recently identified genes linked to breast cancer, for example, you have an 85% chance of getting breast cancer by age 85. The general population of women face a 10% risk of breast cancer.
These mutations are also associated with a 50% to 60% lifetime risk of ovarian cancer (versus a 1% lifetime risk for the general population).
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