Genes and health conditions

Genes are part of the cells in your body. They store instructions for the way your body grows, looks and works. Your genes make you short or tall, have curly or straight hair, have blue eyes or brown eyes. You inherit (get) these genes from your parents.

Just like hair and eye color, parents can pass certain health conditions to their children through genes. A good way to find out about health conditions that you may pass to your baby is to take your family health history. Use this form (.PDF, 424KB) to take your family health history and share it with your health care provider.

What is a gene change?

Sometimes the instructions in genes change. This is called a gene change or a mutation. Parents can pass gene changes to their children. Sometimes a gene change can cause a gene to not work right. Sometimes a gene change can cause health conditions like birth defects, including heart defects, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. A birth defect is a health condition that is present in a baby at birth.

Are all health conditions and birth defects caused by gene changes?

No. Only some health conditions and birth defects are passed directly from parents to children. Others may:

Having a complete family health history can help you and your provider learn more about gene changes and things in your life that may affect your health and your baby’s health.

If you learn that your family has a health condition that gets passed from parent to child, you may want to see a genetic counselor. This is a person who is trained to help you understand about how genes, birth defects and other medical conditions run in families, and how they can affect your health and your baby's health. Ask your health care provider if you need help finding a genetic counselor. Or contact the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

How are gene changes related to ethnicity?

Ethnicity (or ethnic background) means the part of the world or the ethnic groups your ancestors are from. An ethnic group is a group of people, often from the same country, who share language or culture. Ancestors are family members who lived long ago, even before your grandparents.

Your ancestors may be from an ethnic group that is more likely than other groups to have certain health problems that are passed down in families through gene changes. For example:

  • Sickle cell disease is more common in African-Americans than in other people. It’s also more common in people from countries like Greece and Italy. 
  • Tay-Sachs disease is more common in some Eastern European Jewish families than in families who don’t have Eastern European Jewish ancestors.

Ethnicity is an important part of your family health history. This is why our family health history form (.PDF, 424KB) asks about ethnic background of you and your partner. Knowing this information can help you find out about certain health conditions that you could pass to your baby.


Last reviewed: January, 2014

Genes are part of the cells in your body. They store instructions for the way your body grows, looks and works. Your genes make you short or tall, have curly or straight hair, have blue eyes or brown eyes. You inherit (get) these genes from your parents.

Just like hair and eye color, parents can pass certain health conditions to their children through genes. A good way to find out about health conditions that you may pass to your baby is to take your family health history. Use this form (.PDF, 424KB) to take your family health history and share it with your health care provider.

What is a gene change?

Sometimes the instructions in genes change. This is called a gene change or a mutation. Parents can pass gene changes to their children. Sometimes a gene change can cause a gene to not work right. Sometimes a gene change can cause health conditions like birth defects, including heart defects, cystic fibrosis and sickle cell disease. A birth defect is a health condition that is present in a baby at birth.

Are all health conditions and birth defects caused by gene changes?

No. Only some health conditions and birth defects are passed directly from parents to children. Others may:

Having a complete family health history can help you and your provider learn more about gene changes and things in your life that may affect your health and your baby’s health.

If you learn that your family has a health condition that gets passed from parent to child, you may want to see a genetic counselor. This is a person who is trained to help you understand about how genes, birth defects and other medical conditions run in families, and how they can affect your health and your baby's health. Ask your health care provider if you need help finding a genetic counselor. Or contact the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

How are gene changes related to ethnicity?

Ethnicity (or ethnic background) means the part of the world or the ethnic groups your ancestors are from. An ethnic group is a group of people, often from the same country, who share language or culture. Ancestors are family members who lived long ago, even before your grandparents.

Your ancestors may be from an ethnic group that is more likely than other groups to have certain health problems that are passed down in families through gene changes. For example:

  • Sickle cell disease is more common in African-Americans than in other people. It’s also more common in people from countries like Greece and Italy. 
  • Tay-Sachs disease is more common in some Eastern European Jewish families than in families who don’t have Eastern European Jewish ancestors.

Ethnicity is an important part of your family health history. This is why our family health history form (.PDF, 424KB) asks about ethnic background of you and your partner. Knowing this information can help you find out about certain health conditions that you could pass to your baby.


Last reviewed: January, 2014