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Are You Destined to Get Your Parents' Illnesses?

Should You Get Tested? continued...

One example is in women with a strong family history of breast cancer. Finding out that you carry a BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, which greatly increase breast and ovarian cancer risk, can help you take steps to prevent cancer.

With conditions like diabetes and heart disease, the benefits of genetic testing aren't as clear. "Because they come from so many different causes, there don't tend to be dominant genes that we can test for," Lloyd-Jones says.

Even if you know you're at risk for a disease, there may not be much you can do about it.

"In many of these cases, knowing the genetic background for the disease is not going to change the therapy," Snitker says. He mentions the APOE E4 gene for Alzheimer's disease. Even if you learn you have the gene, there aren't any treatments you can use to prevent the disease. That can lead to a lot of unnecessary worry.

In the future, we might have more control over our health thanks to personalized medicine. This practice is based on the idea that we can use our genes to diagnose diseases and hone in on treatments that have the best chance of success based on our unique genetic makeup.

For now, your best defense is to know your family history and your own health risks. Then you can make positive changes to your diet, exercise, and other habits to improve the odds that the disease line in your family stops with you.

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Reviewed on April 23, 2014

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