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10 Ways Your Ancestry and Ethnicity Affect Your Health

Juliette Siegfried, MPH
How Does Ethnicity Affect Health and Cause Illnesses?
Your ancestry (where your family is from) and your ethnicity (your ancestors’ culture, customs, and traditional lifestyle choices) can increase your risk of certain diseases. While genetics are only one of the factors that affect your health, and there are social determinants of health as well, being aware of the genetic possibilities can help you better prepare and take care of your health.

For instance, knowing this genetic information can help your doctors better understand which diseases and conditions for which you may be at increased risk so they can provide proactive care. Thankfully, at-home DNA testing kits are now available to help you learn about your ancestry and ethnicity as well as any genetic predispositions to certain diseases.

What Can You Learn About Your Health From DNA Testing?

DNA testing for health is a type of personal genetics analysis that can tell you whether you carry genes or gene mutations that increase your likelihood of developing serious medical conditions. The results of genetic tests can also help your doctors determine whether you or your children are at increased risk for conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s, or late-onset Alzheimer’s disease.  

Researchers have estimated that genetic defects that can cause diseases are present in at least 10 percent of all adults. What’s more, some diseases and conditions occur more often among certain ethnic groups than they do in the general public, so it can make sense to learn more about your ancestry, ethnicity, and other social determinants of health via DNA testing as well. The early warning provided by these tests can enable you to take steps to avoid or minimize the impact of these diseases. 

In the following sections, we list 10 of the most common hereditary diseases, also known as genetic disorders, for which your ancestry and ethnicity might impact your risk. 

Here are 10 ways in which your health might be affected by your ancestry and ethnicity.

1. Cardiovascular Disease

Heart disease is the leading cause of death among all Americans, but it does not affect all ethnic groups equally. Non-Hispanic Black adults are much more likely to die from heart disease than Caucasians. They also have a higher risk of having a serious or fatal stroke. Two other ethnic minorities that have a high risk of developing heart disease are Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.

Many of the at-home DNA testing kits we reviewed can detect the presence of genes that contribute to an increased risk of heart and circulatory diseases. If your DNA test indicates that you carry such genes, or if you are a member of one of these ethnic groups, this does not mean that you’ll develop heart disease. You’re at higher risk of it, but by following your doctor’s recommendations it is quite possible to avoid it. 

2. Cancer

Cancer is another disease that affects different ethnic groups at different rates. For example, Black males are more likely to be diagnosed with prostate, lung, and colon cancers than white men of the same age. Black women, on the other hand, are less likely to be diagnosed with cancer than white women, but they’re more likely than white women to die from it. 

The highest liver cancer rates are found among Asian, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Pacific Islander ethnicities.

3. Alzheimer’s Disease

Heredity is one of the only known risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease. Research shows that you are more at risk for this genetic disorder if you have a parent or sibling who had the disease. 

Two of the health-focused DNA test kits we recommend, Futura Genetics and 23andMe, test for the risk gene related to Alzheimer’s disease. Again, however, remember that these tests cannot tell you whether you are definitely going to get Alzheimer’s, only that your risk of developing the disease is higher if your DNA profile contains the APOE-e4 gene.

4. Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an example of a single-gene inheritance disorder, which is a hereditary disease that can happen if a copy of the defective gene is found in either parent. Thus the presence of this gene in your DNA profile can be an indication, not only that you are at higher risk for the disease yourself, but that it could be passed along to your children. 

Naturally, you’ll want to know this if you plan to have kids, so genetic testing could help. Cystic fibrosis affects people of many ethnic backgrounds, but the most affected group is Caucasians of Northern European descent. 

Testing for diabetes

5. Diabetes

DNA tests can be of benefit if you have a family history of diabetes, which is a hereditary disease.

Among ethnic minorities, Alaska Natives and American Indians are most likely to be diagnosed with diabetes, followed by Black, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. These ethnicities are also more likely to develop complications from diabetes, such as heart disease, kidney disease, nerve problems, and eye damage. 

The Futura Genetics kit tests for genetic markers associated with both type 1 and 2 diabetes. If they occur in your DNA, your doctors can schedule tests to determine your risk of developing the disease. They can also recommend diet and exercise choices that reduce that risk. There are even apps that help you monitor and keep control of diabetes

6. Kidney Disease

African Americans, especially those of West African heritage, develop this hereditary condition more than any other group and are nearly four times more likely to die of kidney failure. People from Hispanic and American Indian backgrounds are also at increased risk. 

Kidney disease can be detected with simple and inexpensive tests, and early detection can save lives and reduce treatment costs.

6. Breast Cancer and Tay-Sachs Disease

People descended from Ashkenazi Jewish culture have a high risk of carrying the BRCA genes that increase their odds of getting breast cancer, and are also susceptible to Tay-Sachs disease. Therefore, if you learn via a DNA test that your ancestors come from this culture, you may want to schedule more frequent medical tests to check for symptoms of these diseases.

7. Sickle Cell Disease

Sickle Cell Disease, an inherited disorder that affects your red blood cells, is another example of a disease that is caused by a single gene. The condition negatively impacts many aspects of health, and mainly affects Black people. 

In the United States alone, about 1 in 350-400 African-American babies are born with the disease, although it also occurs in Hispanic, South Asian, Southern European Caucasian, and Middle Eastern ethnic groups. 

9. High Blood Pressure

Nearly 50% of African-American adults have hypertension, which is the medical term for high blood pressure. Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander adults also have genetic factors that lead to high rates of hypertension. Compared to other ethnic groups in the U.S., high blood pressure is more likely to show up at an earlier age in Black people and lead to serious complications. 

If your DNA test detects an increased risk for hypertension, it can enable you to schedule proactive treatments that can prevent it from becoming more serious and developing into cardiovascular disease. 

10. Obesity

Obesity is not always considered a disease per se, but it greatly increases the risk that you will develop other health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and some types of cancer. Social and economic disadvantages may help to explain health inequities like why obesity is more prevalent in Black and Hispanic ethnicities than the general population, but it can also be hereditary. 

Therefore, if a DNA test alerts you to the fact that you have inherited a high risk of becoming obese, you can work with your health care providers to keep your weight under control. You can also use a DNA test for weight loss and diet to help choose the best diet plan for your genetic makeup.  


At-home DNA testing kits can be a valuable resource to help learn where your ancestors came from, what you share of their ethnic and cultural traits, and if your genes and ethnicity increase your risk of certain diseases. 

Remember, just belonging to at-risk population groups does not mean you’ll get a certain disease. In most cases, testing can focus on detecting the specific genes that are correlated with increased risk. DNA test kits are generally quite accurate, but they do have limitations. If you have questions about the results, follow up on your test with a visit to your doctor. 

If you learn that you are at increased risk for a disease or condition, your doctor can take preventative measures to lower your risk by recommending lifestyle changes, prescribing medications, and scheduling more frequent check-ups and tests.

Juliette Siegfried, MPH
Juliette Siefried contributes to Top10.com as a biomedical writer, editor, and translator with over 30 years of experience. After working as a health communications specialist for the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and its contractors, Juliette established ServingMed.com, a medical communications business for hospitals, universities, research foundations, and individual healthcare professionals.