By Bethann Hromatka, Ph.D.
Ashkenazi Jews are one group that fall under the umbrella of “European”, but it’s clear from numerous studies that they’re genetically unique and distinct from the European population at large. Most people with Ashkenazi ancestry trace their DNA to Eastern and Central Europe, but also have Middle Eastern ancestry, which is just one reason for their genetic “uniqueness”.
The challenging history of Jewish groups has also contributed to their genetic uniqueness. During the Jewish Diaspora – or migration of Jewish people from the Middle East to other parts of the world – the vast majority of Jewish individuals married and raised families within their faith. Many generations later this means that Ashkenazi Jews can appear more genetically related than they actually are. This genetic isolation has had important implications for health.
People with Ashkenazi ancestry are more likely to carry genetic factors that cause single-gene recessive Mendelian disorders where you need two bad copies of a gene to get the disease. Examples include Gaucher disease, Canavan disease, and Tay-Sachs disease. Because of this higher likelihood, screening for these genetic variants in prospective parents is standard practice for Jewish individuals starting families.
(23andMe tests for most mutations routinely screened in the Ashkenazi Jewish population for these conditions).
A number of multi-gene conditions (or those caused by genetic variation in a handful of genes) are also more common in people with Ashkenazi ancestry. One example is Crohn’s disease, which people with Ashkenazi ancestry are two to four times as likely to develop compared Europeans in general. Although it’s not yet clear why the rates are higher in this population, it’s likely that genetic factors specific to individuals with Ashkenazi ancestry play a role. Knowing about your ancestry can teach you about your family’s heritage and your risk for disease – and more knowledge means more informed decisions.
You can learn more about your ancestry and your genetic health with our Health + Ancestry service. Find out more here.