Tay-Sachs disease occurs primarily among Jews of Eastern European descent but is also found in French Canadians whose roots are in the St. Lawrence region, certain Cajuns in Louisiana, and some Amish communities. Tay-Sachs is an autosomal recessive disorder; a person must have two defective genes (one from each parent) in order for the disease to occur. Carriers, people with only one gene for the disorder, are physically unaffected. When both parents are carriers, each child has a 25% chance of getting the disease. If only one parent is a carrier, there is no chance that the child will get the disease, but there is a 50% chance that the child will be a carrier. The gene may be carried by many generations without a manifestation. For this reason, plus the historical lack of accurate diagnosis and routinely high infant mortality of past generations, there is often no known family history of the disease.
Genetic screening (see genetic testing) for the disease has been possible since the early 1970s and is encouraged in high-risk populations. Blood tests of carriers reveal a reduced amount of the hexosaminidase A. If a couple elects to go forward with a pregnancy, fetal status (again utilizing hexosaminidase A levels) can be ascertained via chorionic villus sampling or amniocentesis. Genetic screening and counseling has greatly reduced the incidence of the disease.