Leukemia does not usually run in families, so in most cases, it is not hereditary. And while some people inherit genetic features that increase their risk, this does not mean they will develop the condition.

Scientists know that genetic changes play a role in the development of leukemia, but not all genetic features are hereditary.

Sometimes, a person is born with a genetic feature they have not inherited from their biological parents. This feature developed after conception but before birth. Such features may increase the risk of leukemia.

Environmental and lifestyle factors can also affect someone’s genes and increase their risk. These factors include exposure to toxic chemicals and smoking. These types of genetic changes occur during a person’s lifetime, and doctors call them acquired genetic changes.

While scientists have identified both acquired and inherited genetic features that occur with leukemia, they have not identified any hereditary gene that causes the disease.

In most cases, it is not possible to know why leukemia occurs.

This article will explore the links between leukemia, family history, and genetics. We also discuss the risk factors and tips for preventing this condition.

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Leukemia is a genetic disease but not necessarily inherited.

It is a genetic disease because it relates to a person’s DNA, the material that carries genetic information. DNA determines the development, growth, and function of body cells.

DNA is responsible for determining unchangeable features, such as eye and hair color, but also the continued growth and development of blood, skin, and other bodily cells.

People inherit DNA, but it can also change during gestation before birth or during their lifetime.

Leukemia results from changes in the DNA of bone marrow cells. It causes atypical cell development in the blood and bone marrow. Leukemia cells may prevent bone marrow from producing healthy cells.

In rare cases, heredity may play a role. Familial acute myeloid leukemia (AML) is an inherited form of AML. People who have familial AML may have altered CEBPA genes.

Sometimes, parents pass along certain genetic mutations or inherited conditions that increase a child’s risk of developing leukemia, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome or Down syndrome.

Types of leukemia that may occur alongside other genetic conditions include:

However, leukemia-related DNA changes usually develop after conception rather than being inherited from a parent’s genes. Exposure to radiation, chemicals, infections, and other environmental factors contribute to genetic changes that result in atypical DNA.

However, in most cases, doctors do not know why leukemia occurs.

Learn more about AML genetic mutations.

Risk factors that increase a person’s chances of developing leukemia include:

Genetic features

Leukemia is a genetic disease that results from changes in a person’s genes. People can inherit genetic risk factors, or their genes can change because of environmental triggers.

The authors of a 2019 study found that certain gene mutations, specifically FLT3-ITD and NRAS mutations, frequently appear in people with AML-M5, a type of AML that forms in immature white blood cells.

Family history

Inherited forms of leukemia appear to be rare.

However, some subtypes of the following leukemias may be due to inherited genetic features:

  • AML
  • CLL
  • MDS

There may be another inherited condition in the family with the same genetic change, such as a platelet deficiency or immune condition.

Age

One form of leukemia, ALL, is more common among children and teenagers than adults.

The risk of developing ALL is higher during childhood but falls as people enter their 20s. It rises again after the age of 50 years.

The risk of developing most cancers increases with age. The American Cancer Society (ACS) estimates that 9 out of 10 people with CLL are aged 50 years or older.

Sex

Males are slightly more likely to have CLL than females. ALL also occurs more often in males than females.

Race

The ACS notes that leukemia is more common in white Americans than in Black Americans. However, research suggests Black people may face poorer prognoses due to disparities in access to care, diagnosis, and treatment.

How do racial disparities affect cancer rates and treatment for Black Americans?

Other inherited genetic disorders

The ACS states that the following inherited genetic syndromes may increase the risk of ALL:

Environmental exposures

Exposure to environmental factors can increase the risk.

Here are some factors that appear to contribute to leukemia:

  • toxic substances, such as benzene
  • radiation, for example, during a nuclear accident, radiation therapy, or X-ray imaging
  • chemotherapy

Benzene is a chemical present in many products, including gasoline, glue, cleaning supplies, cigarettes, detergents, and dyes. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), benzene is in the top 20 most produced chemicals in the United States.

What is the link between benzene and leukemia?

In most cases, it is not clear why leukemia develops. However, being aware of the risk factors can help people take precautions.

Here are some tips for reducing the risk:

  • learn about risks that have links to known genetic features in the family
  • avoid or quit smoking
  • avoid contact with benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxic chemicals

Here are some questions people often ask about leukemia and heredity.

What kind of leukemia is hereditary?

In rare cases, people inherit genetic traits that increase their risk of leukemia, but it does not mean they will develop it. Scientists have found genetic links to various types of this disease. However, most genetic changes that increase the risk happen during a person’s lifetime.

Who is more likely to get leukemia?

Most cases of leukemia do not have an obvious cause, but exposure to high levels of radiation and certain toxins can increase the risk. It can also occur in people with a history of radiation therapy and chemotherapy and in those with certain genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome and Fanconi anemia.

Is there genetic testing for leukemia?

Genetic testing can show doctors which kind of genetic changes are present in cancer cells, and this can help identify the type of leukemia. However, it cannot show if someone is likely to inherit or pass on the disease. In most cases, the genetic changes that occur with leukemia are not hereditary.

Leukemia involves atypical cell development in the blood and bone marrow. It does not usually run in families, but people can inherit genetic features that increase their risk of developing it.

It is not always possible to prevent leukemia, but taking steps, such as avoiding smoking and exposure to certain toxins, may help.