How Your Ancestry and Ethnicity Affect Your Health

Mother and daughter

When it comes to your health, who you are and where you come from matter. So when you gather your family health history, include your ancestry and ethnicity. Both offer clues about your health risks.

We’ve developed tools to help you collect family history. When you ask about health conditions that run in your family, take a close look at your ancestry and ethnicity, too. Understanding both can improve your care.

Ancestry and ethnicity might seem like the same thing. In reality, they’re quite different. It’s a bit like the old nature-versus-nurture debate, although both are important:

  • Ancestry refers to where your family is from, and it can offer clues about your genetics. Ancestry can be more specific than the typical “race” categories you see on forms and surveys. For example, someone who is Asian could descend from one or many ancestral groups.
  • Ethnicity refers to your cultures, customs and, often, lifestyle choices.

For physicians and patients, it’s important to properly identify both ancestry and ethnicity. They’re not always physically obvious. 

“If you’re part of a group with a higher genetic risk, you often can reduce that risk by making better lifestyle choices.”

Kathryn Teng

Kathryn Teng, MD

Center for Personalized Healthcare

Your ancestry may put you at higher risk

Some diseases occur more often among certain groups of people than in the general population. That’s why the “nature” of your ancestry matters.

For example:

  • Ashkenazi Jewish people have a higher risk of carrying the BRCA gene mutation than other populations. They are also genetically predisposed to Tay-Sachs disease.
  • Asians and Hispanics are genetically predisposed to thalassemia.
  • Caucasians have a higher incidence of cystic fibrosis.
  • African Americans have a higher risk of inheritance for sickle cell anemia and cardiovascular disease.

Don’t let this alarm you. A group’s genetic predisposition toward a disease does not mean all group members will develop it. But if you’re part of that group, your risk is higher. Your doctor may want you to go through genetic counseling and screening. You also may want to have certain tests earlier or more frequently.

Your ancestry also may affect how you respond to medications — a concept called pharmacogenetics. For example, the anticonvulsant drug carbamazepine sometimes causes severe and even fatal drug reactions in people of Asian descent. Of course, these drug reactions may still occur in people who are not Asian, and they may not occur in all people of Asian descent. But knowing makes a difference in how your doctor approaches prescriptions.

Your choices and lifestyle play a big role

This is the “nurture” side of the discussion. Ethnicity is all about your lifestyle, culture and behavior. And just like your genetics, all of these affect your health risks.

Do people in your culture eat a low-fat diet that is high in fruits and vegetables? Do they take walks as a family after dinner? Those are positive customs. On the flipside, some ethnicities have higher rates of smoking and more damaging diets.

Here’s why it matters: If you’re part of a group with a higher genetic risk, you often can reduce that risk by making better lifestyle choices. But you can only do that if you have an open, honest discussion about both ancestry and ethnicity with your care team.

Ancestry and ethnicity alone don’t determine if you will develop a disease. But you and your doctors can use both as a part of a personalized toolkit to assess your risk — and to do something about it.

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Kathryn Teng, MD

Kathryn Teng, MD, is Director of the Center for Personalized Healthcare and leads Cleveland Clinic’s efforts to integrate personalized healthcare into standard practice.
  • Jeffrey A Crawford

    I’m 46, overweight, snore like a buzz saw and am sure I have some apnea. However, I sleep like a rock, rarely have any difficulty getting to or staying asleep, and wake rested, usually without an alarm. Why should I be concerned?

  • finkette61

    So can we get assistance for those of us that don’t have the “normal” sleep issues? How about us on the other end of the spectrum? I’m a night owl and can sleep for 10 -12 hours on the weekend. Problem is I have to work the normal 8-5 during the day . Ugh! Going to bed @ 2:00 am every night and able (NEEDING) to sleep for hours on end is not good. Been this way all my life. Other than being able to retire and sleep all day, what is my answer?

  • Carlene Byron

    People get shamed BY their doctors. How many other people have been treated as if we are mental incompetents when another doctor sees our list of psych meds? I actually had an orthopedist PANTOMIME his explanation of why my sister’s doctor was wrong about a health syndrome that runs in our family.

  • Carlene Byron

    Also: TBIs don’t increase your risk of getting mental illnesses. It’s more accurate to say that the symptoms of TBIs are like the symptoms of BP and there’s much more money available to treat BP than TBIs. But if you treat a TBI with BP meds, you can turn a competent professional into a drooler. I’ve seen it happen. I’d like to see the funding stream shift so TBIs can get proper treatment.

  • CIci Girl

    What can you do if you’re allergic to antibiotics? They make my throat swell.