Genetic Factors Are Not the Major Causes of Chronic Diseases

PLoS One. 2016 Apr 22;11(4):e0154387. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0154387. eCollection 2016.


The risk of acquiring a chronic disease is influenced by a person's genetics (G) and exposures received during life (the 'exposome', E) plus their interactions (G×E). Yet, investigators use genome-wide association studies (GWAS) to characterize G while relying on self-reported information to classify E. If E and G×E dominate disease risks, this imbalance obscures important causal factors. To estimate proportions of disease risk attributable to G (plus shared exposures), published data from Western European monozygotic (MZ) twins were used to estimate population attributable fractions (PAFs) for 28 chronic diseases. Genetic PAFs ranged from 3.4% for leukemia to 48.6% for asthma with a median value of 18.5%. Cancers had the lowest PAFs (median = 8.26%) while neurological (median = 26.1%) and lung (median = 33.6%) diseases had the highest PAFs. These PAFs were then linked with Western European mortality statistics to estimate deaths attributable to G for heart disease and nine cancer types. Of 1.53 million Western European deaths in 2000, 0.25 million (16.4%) could be attributed to genetics plus shared exposures. Given the modest influences of G-related factors on the risks of chronic diseases in MZ twins, the disparity in coverage of G and E in etiological research is problematic. To discover causes of disease, GWAS should be complemented with exposome-wide association studies (EWAS) that profile chemicals in biospecimens from incident disease cases and matched controls.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution, Indoor / adverse effects
  • Alcohol Drinking / adverse effects
  • Asthma / diagnosis
  • Asthma / etiology*
  • Asthma / genetics
  • Asthma / mortality
  • Chronic Disease
  • Environmental Exposure / adverse effects*
  • Female
  • Gene-Environment Interaction
  • Genome-Wide Association Study
  • Heart Diseases / diagnosis
  • Heart Diseases / etiology*
  • Heart Diseases / genetics
  • Heart Diseases / mortality
  • Heredity*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / diagnosis
  • Neoplasms / etiology*
  • Neoplasms / genetics
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Nervous System Diseases / genetics
  • Nervous System Diseases / mortality
  • Smoking / adverse effects
  • Sodium, Dietary / adverse effects
  • Survival Analysis
  • Twins, Monozygotic / genetics


  • Sodium, Dietary