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What Is a Genetic Predisposition?

Individuals may have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism.
A genetic predisposition is a likelihood of developing a disease based on genetics.
Genetic predisposition is often part of the debate over nature vs. nurture.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 13 August 2014
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A genetic predisposition is greater genetic likelihood of developing certain things, such as diseases, allergies, temperament, a certain level of intelligence or many other examples. It should be noted that people with genetic predispositions don’t always end up with the things to which they are predisposed. While genes may be a reliable predictor of certain elements, environment or other genes that haven’t been identified are also important. People are predisposed but not assuredly going to express the genes they’ve inherited from parents.

Genetic predisposition should be viewed as distinct from genes that are always expressed. Those who inherit a gene for Huntington’s disease invariably and ultimately will show signs of the illness. A woman who carries a gene that suggests she is more at risk for breast cancer doesn’t have this same surety. She has an increased chance of getting breast cancer than those in the normal population, but she still may never get it. Some genes, like the one for Huntington’s, really aren’t predispositions and are instead going to work if they have been inherited, no matter what.

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This distinction is important when analyzing genetic material. It could be vital to know if a person will inherit a serious and/or fatal illness, but a firestorm of debate exists around the issue of judging people by genetic makeup. Genes of family history that suggest higher intelligence, greater risk for heart disease, increased chances of cancer, or elevated risk of mental illness aren’t always sureties. Moreover, people who lack these genetic expressions could still be highly intelligent, more prone to cardiac illness, or likely to get cancer or mental illness.

The nature/nurture argument lies at the heart of debates about genetic predisposition. Environment plays a significant role in the expression of good and bad genes. A person who grows up in an abusive household may not be genetically prone to mental illness, but is certainly environmentally prone to it. The smoker elevates environmental risk for cancer hugely. Even factors like when women have their first children and whether they breastfeed may decrease or elevate risk for breast cancer.

One concern with evaluating genetic predisposition via gene testing is that it will be used to discriminate against others. Health insurance companies could demand genetic testing and prune from their rolls anyone who has genes that might suggest elevated risk for disease. Employers could refuse to hire those who might need more time off if they got specific illnesses, or they could screen for people with greater likelihood of intelligence. Countries like the US have signed laws prohibiting discrimination based on genetic factors, but as with any other form of discrimination, it’s still possible to break or circumvent these laws.

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anon337761
Post 5

What about people with a genetic disposition toward a particular disease?

anon323807
Post 4

I have four uncles who developed lung and liver cancer, and two aunts, one who had breast cancer and one with uterine cancer. They are all on my mother's side. Does this mean they are genetically predisposed to producing cancer cells? The common denominator is they all smoked cigarettes or breathed second hand smoke.

Renegade
Post 3

I have a relative who was schizophrenic. This is important for me to recognize and to remind my children, so that they can be cautious and watch for the first signs of schizophrenia in their family. This will enable the disorder to be nipped in the bud.

Armas1313
Post 2

Certain people have a genetic disposition toward bipolar disorder. I have family friends who are all a member of a bipolar family. The unique challenges presented to them require constant evaluation and support. They have all been on and off of medication for most of their lives. A few of them have few signs and symptoms, however. They are carriers.

hangugeo112
Post 1

Understanding how diseases are transmitted by generations is an important part of the human genome project. As we learn to understand cellular DNA and the transmission of genetic traits, we will progress in our ability to fight various conditions. It is postulated that in the near future we will be able to drastically increase human longevity to an antediluvian level.

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