Some inheritances are a curse. I don’t mean your grandmother’s cabinet of porcelain fawns, nor your uncle’s portfolio of watercolor still lifes, nor the 40 years of Model Railroader magazines stowed in the rafters of your dad’s garage. Worse than any of these is the hand-me-down that could be hiding in your genes. No one wants to wind up with the family’s hereditary disease.
Whether it’s diabetes, Alzheimer’s, or heart disease, having a family history of a hereditary disease can cast a shadow over your life. Some folks try to ignore it, others become obsessed with their family’s medical history and genetics. There’s always that uneasy feeling: Will it get me too?
“A history of hereditary disease can cause a lot of anxiety and worry,” says Adel Gilbert, MS, CGC, a genetic counselor at Johns Hopkins University. “It can really affect your quality of life, or even how you live your life.”
I’ve spent most of my life in this gloom. My father died at 43, unexpectedly, of a stroke. And his father died at 64 (heart attack), and his father at 57 (heart attack), and his father at 61 (stroke). So the average age of death for the past four patriarchs of my family is 56 — a lifespan that would be above average for a 19th century coal miner and superb for a Neanderthal. But it’s not so hot for a man of the 20th century, let alone the 21st.
I’d like to beat the odds. I’m 34 now. I’d like to forestall or avoid the cardiovascular disease that felled my forefathers. Not only would I like to surpass the current record of 64 years — I’d like to exceed that life span by decades.
But is that a foolish hope for a guy with my family history? Is an early expiration date already written indelibly in my genes? Are my chances of getting to 80 any better than a mayfly’s? Under the cover of medical journalism, I turned to genetic experts to find out.
Can Genetic Testing Trump Family History?
“I see lots of people who are convinced they’re genetically doomed,” says Carrie Zabel. She’s a genetic counselor at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, whose job is to help people better understand their hereditary risks.
It’s no wonder people can feel so hopeless about their DNA. We view genes and genetic testing with superstitious awe. A news report about the discovery of a gene can sound as ominous as the prophecy of an ancient oracle. Genes seem to control everything — our intelligence, our risk for disease, whether we like anchovies. Each breakthrough in genetic medicine seems to erode a bit more of the tiny allotment of free will that we thought we had.