The rapidly advancing pace of research in genetics and genomics means that much information about the inherited component of cancer risk is becoming available to the public through a variety of sources. Genetic discoveries appear regularly in the mass media,1
for example, and these stories may affect individuals' beliefs about the role of genes in cancer causation,1-3
as well as their subsequent preventive behaviors. This study was designed to address the question of whether beliefs about the heritability of cancer are correlated with individuals' health information seeking and protective health behaviors.
This analysis is based on an adaptation of the Common Sense Model, which states that the effects of genetic susceptibility information on health information seeking and behaviors might depend upon individuals' cognitive representations of disease risk, such as their beliefs about the causes of cancer, and how these representations are then translated to behavior.4
The posited relationship between beliefs about genetic causation of cancer and health information seeking has not previously been examined empirically. Some prior research indicated that diseases with a genetic cause may be conceptualized as less controllable or not preventable,5-7
beliefs that might inhibit individuals' information seeking. Alternatively, beliefs about genetic susceptibility to cancer could increase patients' perceptions of personal risk,8
thereby increasing their motivation to seek health information.9
Previous research has shown that cancer information seeking is related to sociodemographic characteristics, cancer knowledge, health care access, and personal and family history of cancer.10, 11
Here we investigated whether health information seeking was correlated with beliefs about the heritability of cancer.
We also examined the relationship between these beliefs and protective health behaviors. Prior related research has generally been limited to examining screening behaviors among high-risk families, communication within families, or interest in genetic testing.5, 12
The association of beliefs about genetic causation with health behaviors in the context of the general public and common cancers has been largely unexplored. Related studies investigating the effect of providing new genetic susceptibility information on health behaviors have had mixed findings.8
Genetic risk information has alternatively been hypothesized to increase motivation to change behavior by increasing perceived risk or to decrease motivation by weakening efficacy beliefs or heightening fatalism.13
Empirical research is needed to examine how pre-existing beliefs about the genetic basis of cancer are related to protective health behaviors.
Data from the first wave of the Health Information National Trends Survey (HINTS), which was conducted with a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults,9
provided a unique resource with which to investigate these questions. Based on our theoretical model, we hypothesized that endorsing beliefs about the heritability of cancer would be positively associated with health information seeking and engaging in protective health behaviors; we also explored the role of educational attainment in these associations.