Researchers have found that those who are at higher risk of disease are more likely to blame their genetic causes than attempt any lifestyle improvements.
According to Dr. Suzanne O'Neill from the National Human Genome Research Institute/National Institutes of Health, and her colleagues, people on the whole are still interested in how health habits affect disease risk.
However, those with the greatest need to change their behaviours are more likely to favour genetic explanations for their diseases and the more behavioural risk factors they have, the less likely they are to be interested in behaviour change information.
The completion of the Human Genome Project has led to increased availability of genetic risk information linking gene variants to a number of common health conditions.
There is some concern that this genetic risk information might prompt some individuals to give genetic causation undue importance while downplaying the contribution of well-known behavioural and environmental factors, leading to reduced motivation to make behavioural changes.
This potential misinterpretation of genetic information may undermine public health efforts to promote the behavioural changes needed to prevent disease.
To identify the link between family history, behavioural risks and causal attributions for diseases and the perceived value of pursuing information emphasizing health habits or genes, the authors asked a total of 1,959 healthy American adults to complete a survey.
The survey assessed the participants' behavioural risk factors (physical activity, dietary habits, smoking, alcohol consumption, sun exposure, multivitamin use and body mass index), family history, causal attributions for eight largely preventable diseases (diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, high cholesterol, hypertension, lung, colon and skin cancers), and their preferences for one type of health information over another.
They found that the majority of participants recognized that health behaviours were more likely to cause ill health than genetics.
On the whole, they were more interested in behavioural health information than in genetic information to understand what affects their chances of getting certain conditions. However, as the number of behavioural risk factors increased, inclination to favour genetic explanations also increased.
"Our findings highlight that, although most did not over-ascribe common health conditions to genetics or hold defensively biased causal attributions that would inhibit needed behavior change, those with the greatest need for behavior change are at most risk for responding defensively and devaluing behavior change information. One possible explanation suggested by the authors is that behaviorally at-risk participants may have prior experience seeking and applying standard behavioral advice without success. As a result these individuals may see less value in this information," concluded the authors.
The study is published online in Springer's journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine.