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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
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Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention  
Office of Genomics and Disease Prevention

Frequently Asked Questions

1.   What is genetics? What is genomics? 

Genetics is the study of inheritance, or the way traits are passed down from one generation to another. Genes carry the instructions for making proteins, which in turn direct the activities of cells and functions of the body that influence traits such as hair and eye color. Genomics is a newer term that describes the study of all the genes in a person, as well as interactions of those genes with each other and with that person’s environment.     Learn more

2.   What does genomics have to do with my health?

Genomics plays a part in nine of the ten leading causes of death in the United States. All human beings are 99.9 percent identical in genetic makeup, but differences in the remaining 0.1 percent may hold important clues about the causes of disease.

We hope that the study of genomics will one day provide insight into why some people get sick from certain infections, environmental exposures, and behaviors, while others do not. Better understanding of the interactions between genes and the environment will help us find better ways to improve health and prevent diseases.

3.   My mother had breast cancer. Does this mean I will get cancer, too? 

Having a family member with a disease suggests that you may have a higher chance of developing that disease than someone without a similar family history. It does not mean that you will definitely develop the disease. Genes are only one of many factors that contribute to disease. Other factors to consider include your diet, exercise patterns, and where you live or work.

If you are at risk for breast cancer, consider following national guidelines for a healthy diet and regular exercise. It is also important to follow recommendations for screening tests (such as mammograms) that may help to determine disease.       Learn more

4.  Because both of my parents had heart disease, I know I have “bad” genes. Is there anything  I can do to protect myself? 

First of all, there are no “good” or “bad” genes. Most human diseases, especially common diseases such as heart disease, result from the interaction of genes with environmental and behavioral risk factors that can be changed. The best disease prevention strategy for anyone, especially for those with an inherited risk, includes reducing risky behaviors (such as smoking), as well as increasing healthy behaviors (such as regular exercise).        Learn more

5.   What does family history have to do with “genomics”? 

Your family history reflects the combination of shared genes, environment, behavior, and culture. Traits like curly hair, dimples, leanness and athletic ability are partly inherited. So are risks for health conditions like asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease. Knowing your family history should be the first step in gathering information that may affect your health.

6.  How can knowing my family history help lower my risk of disease? 

You can’t change your genes, but you can change behaviors that affect your health, such as smoking, inactivity, and poor eating habits. People with a family history of chronic disease may have the most to gain from making lifestyle changes. In many cases, making these changes can reduce your risk of disease even if the disease runs in your family.

Another change you can make is to participate in screening tests, such as mammograms and colorectal cancer screening, for early detection of disease. People who have a family history of a chronic disease may benefit the most from screening tests that look for risk factors or early signs of disease. Finding disease early, before symptoms appear, can mean better health in the long run.

7.  How can I learn about my family history? 

The best way to learn about your family history is to ask questions, talk at family gatherings, draw a family tree, and record health information. If possible, look at death certificates and family medical records.    Learn more

8.  What should I do with the information? 

First, write down the information you collect about your family history and share it with your doctor. Second, remember to keep this information updated and share information about your health condition with your siblings and children. Third, pass it on to your children, so that they too will have a family history record.

9.  What will my doctor do with the information? 

Your doctor will assess your risk of disease based on your family history and other risk factors. Your doctor may also recommend things you can do to help prevent disease, such as exercising more, changing your diet, or using screening tests to detect disease early.   Learn more

10.  If I don’t have a family history of disease, does that mean I am not at risk? 

Even if you don’t have a history of a particular disease in your family, you could still be at risk because you may be unaware of disease in some family members, or you could have family members who died young, before they had a chance to develop chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or cancer. Finally, your risk of developing a chronic disease is influenced by many other factors, including your habits and personal health history.

For additional FAQs about Genomics, visit the following Web sites:

  1. Genes and Populations: Frequently asked questions about genetics research.
  2. Understanding Gene Testing: Frequently asked questions about genetic testing.
  3. The Department of Energy (DOE) presents FAQs on the following topics:
Last Updated October 12, 2004