Skip to main content

Information is Beautiful Studio take a visual approach to exploring the complex relationships between our health, genes, lifestyle and environment.

In 1951 essayist Norman Cousins wrote: “The hand that is dealt you represents determinism. The way you play your hand represents free will.” He was writing about the nature of man, but it’s not unreasonable to extrapolate his thoughts to the part that our genes play in our health.

The genetic material we inherit from our parents may be a blueprint, an instruction book used to build our body and to keep it running, but – for most of us – it doesn’t determine our fate completely. 

Although it’s true that some illnesses or conditions are the result of a single change in a particular gene, the causes of many of the most common conditions that affect us (including heart disease, diabetes and some cancers) are not as clear cut.

The life we lead, the food we eat and the environment we live in can have just as much of an effect as the genes we inherit – and often more. In these cases, our genes don’t so much dictate the events of our lives as contribute to the risk that a particular condition will affect us.

Mosaic worked with the Information is Beautiful Studio to explore the complex interaction between our genes, our environment and our behaviour. Scroll down to see the result and to find out why, for many medical conditions, our unique genetic make-up is more a matter of risk than destiny.

Genetics — Risk, not Destiny

How influential are genes in the development of diseases? It depends...

Huntington\'s disease in UK population

1 in 10,000 have a gene variant causing Huntington's disease

Odds of developing the disease:

With variant 1 in 1

Without 0 in 1

Breast cancer in UK female population

1 in 500 have BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene variants

Odds of developing the disease

With variant 1 in 2* * up to age of 70

General population 1 in 8* *Includes some women with BRCA variants

Personal, behaviour and environmental traits affect risk of disease

Factors that increase your chance of getting a disease


Genetic risk

  • 100% Huntington\'s disease

    Family history
    Increased age
  • 41% Coronary heart disease

    Family history
    Increased age
    Other diseases
    Air pollution
  • 10% Lung cancer

    Family history
    Air pollution

For common diseases, behaviour can be just as important as genetics

UK deaths from coronary heart disease

13% of UK deaths caused by coronary heart disease

Factors affecting risk of developing coronary heart disease

Factor: MTHFR gene variant

Factor: Smoking

Factor: Obesity

Symptoms of some diseases can be reduced by behaviour


Genetic risk

  • 100% Phenylketonuria

    Trigger: Environmental
    Phenylalanine, found in proteins
    Solution: Change behaviour
    Avoid foodstuffs with phenylalanine (e.g. milk, meat, sweeteners)
  • 72% Coeliac disease

    Trigger: Environmental
    Gliadin, found in gluten
    Solution: Change behaviour
    Follow a gluten-free diet avoiding wheat

And genetic variants can reduce your risk of disease

Some gene variants can be good for you

If you have a variant in: APCO3 Your chance of getting: Coronary heart disease is 40%
less likely than the average person

If you have a variant in: SLC30A8 Your chance of getting: Type 2 diabetes is 65%
less likely

If you have a variant in: CCR5 Your chance of getting: HIV is up to
less likely

But don't bank on having them...

You have a 1% likelihood of carrying any of these variants

The main list of sources we used for this graphic is available on Google Sheets. Additional sources and resources, and the assumptions made, are also discussed in the related ExtraGenetics: risk or destiny? - Assumptions and resources.

If you would like to republish this mobile-responsive graphic, which is available under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International licence, you can download the code from GitHub

Return back to top of the page