During the last two decades, health promotion has concentrated on lifestyle factors. However, recent research in genetics has shown that inherited susceptibility may be important in many common conditions. This raises questions about how these two different messages are integrated into people's beliefs about their own susceptibility. We report a study based on interviews with 58 young people, who had all recently completed the National Curriculum science course including basic human genetics, and 54 of their parents. We aimed to examine the extent to which people take account of family history when considering their susceptibility to health risks, with comparisons being made between generations, gender, and between different diseases. Family health histories were compared between generations and the relationship between reported family history and perceived vulnerability was examined. Family health history was seen as more relevant for a perceived vulnerability to heart disease and diabetes than cancer, while actions and behaviour were seen as important in determining the chance of developing heart disease and cancer but less so for diabetes. Chance was seen as an important factor in the risk of cancer and diabetes, but was barely mentioned in connection with heart disease. Nearly half of those who reported affected family members with heart disease or cancer did not perceive this to have any effect on their own susceptibility. Notably, women were much more likely than men to see the presence or absence of affected relatives as being relevant to the chances of developing cancer. Differences were found between generations in the reporting of the family tree and in knowledge of health of family members. Although words such as genes, chromosomes, and DNA were used by both generations there was no evidence of any understanding of the process of inheritance in scientific terms.
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