News from Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital and Hospital Foundation
If you’re like me, you’ve heard certain medical terms all your life and though you should remember a bit about them from your high school science classes, you may have just retained a vague idea of what the term means.
Genes is a term that I never thought much about until I worked in health care. I know we all have genes and I know they are made up by DNA. I also know they are connected to heredity. But, why do we have genes?
Before we can understand genes, we need to know a bit about cells. The basic building block of all living things, human cells cannot be seen by the naked eye. In fact, our bodies are made up of trillions of them. Hundreds of different kinds of cells make our body function. For example, blood cells carry oxygen throughout the body.
Hidden inside every cell in the body is DNA. DNA is made up of millions of small chemicals called bases. A gene is a short section of DNA. Genes contain instructions that tell our cells to make molecules called proteins. These proteins perform various functions in the body to keep us healthy. Genes also carry instructions that determine our hair color, eye color and even our height. Genes are so tiny that approximately 20,000 of them fit inside every cell. Your entire sequence of genes and bases is called your genome.
Changes in your genes may make you susceptible to many common diseases including cancer, diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even mental illness. Research is being conducted to calculate a person’s estimated risk for developing a common disease based on the combination of variants in many genes across their genome. It is thought that this measure, known as a polygenic risk score, may help guide health care decisions in the future.
If you have never sat down with family members to discuss your family health history, it is an important discussion to have. Families have similar genetic backgrounds. That, along with lifestyle, can provide clues to conditions that may run in a family. By noticing patterns or disorders among relatives, your physician can help determine if you, or other current or future generations, may have an increased risk of developing a particular disease.
Examples of this may be heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, certain cancers, and type 2 diabetes. A family history can also provide information about the risk of rarer conditions caused by variant mutations in a single gene such as cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease.
Knowing your family history offers an opportunity to reduce risk. It is important that you keep your family history up to date with your medical professionals. This may be more frequent screening such as mammography or colonoscopy. Your physician may suggest regular check-ups or testing. Sometimes knowing a family history encourages a change in lifestyle such as a healthier diet, more exercise or quitting smoking.
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