Intended for healthcare professionals

Education And Debate

Genetic risk and behavioural change

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 28 April 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1056
  1. Theresa M Marteau (, professor of health psychologya,
  2. Caryn Lerman, professor of oncology and psychiatryb
  1. a Psychology and Genetics Research Group, GKT Medical School, King's College London, Thomas Guy House, London SE1 9RT
  2. b Cancer Control and Population Science, Georgetown University Medical Center, 2233 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC 20007-4101, USA
  1. Correspondence to: T M Marteau

    Predictive genetic testing is currently used mainly for untreatable conditions, such as Huntington's disease, or prenatal detection of serious genetic disorders such as cystic fibrosis. Prenatal tests are usually accompanied by an offer of termination of affected pregnancies. Genes have now been isolated that are associated with potentially preventable diseases such as heart disease and cancer and with increased risk from smoking and obesity. This has raised the possibility of providing predictive information to many more people. Such information may eventually reduce disease by facilitating the development of better targeted and more effective treatment.

    Informing people of their genetic susceptibility to disease may motivate them to change their behaviour to reduce their risks. However, changing behaviour is often difficult. In this article we review the limited evidence concerning behavioural responses to genetic information on risk. We use this and the literature on behavioural change to consider if and how behaviour might be changed in response to genetic information.

    Summary points

    Changing behaviour is difficult

    Behavioural change is most likely in motivated people who participate in effective interventions

    Providing people with genetic information on risk may not increase their motivation to change behaviour and in some cases may decrease motivation

    Behavioural change may be more likely if people are persuaded that changing their behaviour can reduce the risk of an adverse health outcome and they are given access to evidence based interventions

    Further research is needed to evaluate programmes in which genetic risk information is given, including evaluation of different ways of giving information

    Effective interventions to change behaviour after provision of information on risk need to be developed


    We searched Medline, PsycINFO, and the Social Science Citation Index using the following terms: health behavior; illness behavior; genetic screening or mass screening; cancer screening, health screening, mammography, or preventive medicine; genetic counselling, genetic …

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