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What are complex or multifactorial disorders?

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Researchers are learning that nearly all conditions and diseases have a genetic component. Some disorders, such as sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis, are caused by mutations in a single gene. The causes of many other disorders, however, are much more complex. Common medical problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity do not have a single genetic cause—they are likely associated with the effects of multiple genes in combination with lifestyle and environmental factors. Conditions caused by many contributing factors are called complex or multifactorial disorders.

Although complex disorders often cluster in families, they do not have a clear-cut pattern of inheritance. This makes it difficult to determine a person’s risk of inheriting or passing on these disorders. Complex disorders are also difficult to study and treat because the specific factors that cause most of these disorders have not yet been identified. By 2010, however, researchers predict they will have found the major contributing genes for many common complex disorders.

For more information about complex disorders:

A fact sheet about the inheritance of multifactorial disordersThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference. is available from the Centre for Genetics Education.

If you would like information about a specific complex disorder such as diabetes or obesity, MedlinePlusThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference. will lead you to fact sheets and other reliable medical information. In addition, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provides a detailed list of diseases and conditionsThis link leads to a site outside Genetics Home Reference. that links to additional information.

Next: What information about a genetic condition can statistics provide?

Published: February 11, 2013