Women's Health: Genetics

Your Health Matters

Mom jeans might be having a moment, but when it comes to your mom’s genes, they play an important part in your life and your health.

“There are about 20,500 human genes. In recent years, we’ve learned so much about how genes work and why some diseases run in families,” according to Kristy Hose, a nurse practitioner with advanced certifications in genetics, who works for the Meritus Center for Breast Health.

While we can’t change our genes, knowing we have a higher-than-average chance of developing certain diseases can help us take steps to lower our risks.

Here’s a quick reminder: We each inherit two copies of our genes, one from each parent. They are our personal instruction manual. Proteins do the work of building and maintaining our body. When genes that instruct the making of proteins develop mutations, it can cause disease. Although a mutation in a single gene can cause a disease (for example, sickle cell anemia), most diseases are the result of a combination of mutations along with lifestyle choices (such as smoking) and our environment.

Genes and disease certain known mutations raise our risk for specific diseases. Inherited mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, for example, raise a woman’s risk of developing breast and ovarian cancer.

“Having these mutations does not mean that a woman will definitely develop one of these cancers. It just means she’s at a higher risk of doing so,” said Hose.

How much more?

According to the National Cancer Institute, about 12 percent of women who don’t have these mutations will develop breast cancer at some point in their lives. In contrast, about 75 percent of women with the BRCA1 mutation and 69 percent of those with BRCA2 mutations will develop breast cancer by age 80.

“If you have a family history of high blood pressure, you are at risk for developing high blood pressure at a young age. If a man has a father or brother with prostate cancer, it more than doubles the risk he will also have prostate cancer. Even though you cannot change your genetic makeup, knowing your family history can help you reduce your risk of developing health problems,” said Hose. 

Several common illnesses, including heart disease, high blood pressure, asthma, diabetes and some types of cancer run in families. Knowing your family’s health history can help you determine if you have an increased risk, since inherited diseases tend to show up in distinct patterns.

According to Hose, if one or more close relatives have a disease, or they developed it at an earlier-than-average age, you may be at increased risk. When it comes to genetic testing, ask your doctor if the procedure makes sense for you. While it can be helpful for those at high risk, you’ll want to work with a qualified genetic counselor or go to a clinical human genomic program at a hospital where trained professionals can help you make sense of the results. Genetic testing can provide important, life-saving information.

What should you do today?

“Learning about your family medical history can help you and your health care team determine whether genetic testing is likely to be of benefit. Share your family health history with your healthcare provider. In addition to making lifestyle changes (such as quitting smoking or losing weight), they may recommend additional ways to lower your risk, including medical treatments, enhance screenings, preventive medicines, or risk reducing surgery,” said Hose.

At Meritus Health, we strive to provide women throughout Maryland and surrounding areas with high quality, trusted health care services. Our women’s health services department offers comprehensive OB/GYN care in addition to breast health and maternity services. Find out more at