Genetics: An Old Excuse on Its Way Out
Research is now showing that how people choose to live (lifestyle habits) can, in effect, turn on or turn off genes.
That’s right. If you consistently put down the donut during snack-time and reach instead for a cup of yogurt with blueberries, you could literally change the course of your life!
There is no denying that your genes play a pretty big part in who you become. They lay down the code for how you look and for what medical conditions you are predisposed to developing. The key word here is predisposed. The Free Dictionary online defines predisposed as “to make (someone) inclined to something in advance” (1).
Predisposition does not determine your future health path; it just tells you which of the possible paths you are more likely to walk down.
A simple example of this is found in the transcription of genes that produce lactase, an enzyme needed to digest lactose, which is found primarily in milk. If a person stops drinking milk, the body doesn’t take the steps needed to produce lactase because it is wasted energy and eventually the person loses the ability to digest milk resulting in lactose intolerance. However, if that same person doesn’t stop drinking milk, or even begins to drink very small amounts of milk again, the body will spend the extra energy needed to keep making lactase and be able to digest milk (2). Same person, if they drink milk regularly, they can digest it. If they don’t drink milk regularly, they develop lactose intolerance.
Pretty neat stuff.
The point of this discussion is an article (3) discussing lifestyle habits and cardiovascular disease (CVD). This article covers two studies. One of these studies suggests that developing healthy lifestyle habits can have more of an impact on a person’s predisposition to develop CVD than their genetics. The authors list five habits:
- Do not smoke
- Drink little, if any, alcohol
- Maintain a healthy body weight
- Be physically active
- Consume a healthy diet
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
One of the studies this is based on had nearly 2,400 participants and spanned 20 years. It found that 60% of the participants who had all five lifestyle habits had a low-risk for CVD. The picture is not nearly as pretty for those who had one or none of those lifestyle habits – only 6% had a low-risk profile. 60% or 6%. That’s a pretty big difference when it comes to your heart health.
The other study reviewed data from the famous Framingham Heart Study and included nearly 16,500 people who were either 40 or 50 years old. This study found that genetics plays a small role in CVD when compared to lifestyle habits. Even scarier, it found that only 8% of Americans have “ideal levels of all the risk factors for cardiovascular health at middle age.” 8%! That’s a pretty low number!
So, what does this tell us?
It tells me a couple of things. One is that our population is falling short when it comes to practicing these healthy lifestyle habits and this concerns me. The other is that genetics does not absolutely determine our fate. We have some control over our fate.
Our future health is literally in our hands. It is determined by whether we reach for the donut or the yogurt. It is determined by whether we reach for our sneakers or the remote control.
Me? I’m going for the yogurt and my sneakers.
How about you?
2. Nutrition and Metabolism I class taught by Dr. Nancy Correa-Matos at University of North Florida
3. Northwestern University (2010, November 15). Healthy lifestyle has bigger impact on cardiovascular health than genetics, studies. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101115151954.htm