How Family History and Genetics Affect Health and Chronic Conditions

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  • 0:01 Chronic Conditions
  • 1:13 Childhood
  • 3:05 Adulthood
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson, we will look at the influence that genetics has on us in terms of chronic, and sometimes lethal, diseases or conditions. We look briefly at how many individuals are born with predispositions to various conditions.

Chronic Conditions

If you've been around psychology for any length of time, someone will have pestered you with the 'nature vs. nurture' debate. It seems to endlessly fascinate people who love to debate because the answer is 'both.'

What's more, once we start getting into the higher-level information on genetics, we actually see epigenetics, which is the activation and interaction between the environment and genes. Genes, when they are activated, can keep people alive when they should have died. You look at some of the countries destroyed by war, and they should have died of starvation. But they keep on going.

What we are dancing around here is that the environment influences you in large ways, like a bus hitting you, and in small ways, like messing up your DNA. In this lesson, we are interested in the small ways. How do genes, with self-activation or environmental activation, influence chronic diseases? A chronic disease, sometimes referred to as a chronic condition, is a condition that develops more slowly and typically worsens over time.


It's never fun to talk about childhood death and disease, so we're going to keep the jokes out of this for a bit. About 20-30% of all childhood deaths are due to some genetic disease.

Congenital malformation, or birth defects, have also been tied to damaged genes as well as environmental poisons. This would include defects that are present before birth. This can happen because the genetics don't trigger correctly. Remember, a fetus is a construction site with the blueprints in the DNA. All it takes is one major problem, and the whole construction site is unfeasible.

For example, growth problems in the heart or circulatory system mean it could not survive. Developmental issues in the brain translate into something that cannot function. We have some wonderful medicines, but the complexity of fetal growth is astounding. About 3-5% of all infant deaths are due to various congenital malformations.

Mental retardation is a term that is going out of style, and we have cleverly replaced it with intellectual disability. It is a substantial reduction in the cognitive intelligence as well as difficulty or inability to function in a major way. By functioning, we are talking about taking care of one's self, such as bathing, feeding and interacting with others. As much as 50% of intellectual disabilities are due to genetic influences. This can be something like Down syndrome or another mutation that has occurred at the genetic level that doesn't have a name.

In general, we can say that in childhood, chronic diseases tend to be more severe than adults. This includes malformations and retardation. The malformation can kill, while mental retardation is permanent.


When it comes to more serious chronic conditions, like that of cancer, it has been determined that 15% of people with cancer have an inherited risk. The environment has all kinds of nasty things in it, and for most people, they are able to fight it off. In some people, the nasty things set up shop and mutate our DNA, giving us cancer. This 15% are more likely to have cancer set up shop for reasons that have to do with the immune system, DNA repairing or something else.

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