The role and meaning of genetic information has grown considerably in the recent decades. We examined changes in causal beliefs about morbidity as well as the associations between causal beliefs, health behaviors and obesity, and health outcome beliefs from 1982 to 2002.
In five population-based risk-factor surveys (the FINRISK Studies) of individuals aged 25 to 64 years conducted from 1982 to 2002 (n = 37,503), respondents chose the most important cause of morbidity from a list of ten alternatives. Health outcome beliefs were assessed with two items. Physical inactivity and smoking status were based on self-reports and obesity was based on measured height and weight.
The prevalence of those who endorse genetic factors as the most important cause of morbidity increased from 4% in 1982 to 10% in 1992 and remained at that level until 2002. During the study period, lack of exercise and overweight increased, whereas inappropriate diet and stress diminished as causal beliefs about morbidity. Smokers and physically inactive were more likely to endorse genetic than behavioral causes of morbidity, whereas obese respondents were more likely to choose overweight over genetic causes of morbidity. Those who endorse genetic factors as the most important cause had more pessimistic outcome beliefs about health behavior changes, but these outcome beliefs became more positive in all causal belief groups during the study period.
Despite increased public discussion of genomics, the relative proportion of those who endorse genetic factors as the most important cause of morbidity has remained low. However, within this group beliefs about benefits of health behavior changes have become more positive. This could indicate that increase in genomic health information does not lead to more negative appraisals of efficacy of lifestyle changes.