You eat right, exercise, spend time with friends and family, volunteer in your community, reduce stress, get enough sleep, and all the other things that are known to help you live a longer, happier life. Have you ever wondered, do all your efforts matter? Do they really make a difference? Or are we really just the sum of our genetic parts and our health and well-being determined even before we were born?
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What scientists know about how genes affect disease – your mortality and quality of life – has grown astronomically in recent years. Genetic repositories contain the genetic information of hundreds of thousands to millions of people. Scientists can make reasonable predictions of your chance of getting diseases not only resulting from rare genetic errors but also more common diseases like arthritis, atherosclerosis, particular forms of cancer, diabetes, and even depression. Some scientists predict that in the near future everyone from baby to senior could get a test telling them what percentage chance they have for these diseases.
With so much data available complex patterns of genetic variance are now seeable whereas these disease patterns were previously hidden because of smaller data sets and limited studies and computational power. For example, with so much data available tests are becoming more accurate – a test from this past year can now guess a person’s height to within four centimeters!
But with these larger genetic data sets comes new problems. Instead of finding that a disease is caused by one genetic defect we’re finding diseases result from many defects spread over the genome. For instance, instead of the 12 genes we thought influenced type 2 diabetes, we now know that this disease is influenced by at least 400 different locations in our DNA (and probably more!). As each defect has a different effect,a sometimes small and hard-to-detect effect, it means that curing the disease is that much more difficult.
Yes, they matter
We are in luck. How you live, the food you eat, what you drink, your sleep, and the exercise you get all positively impact your genes.
One study on people who had very high genetic predisposition for suffering a heart attack (they had two copies of a specific gene known to be associated with cardiac arrest) doubled their heart attack risk if their diet lacked in fruits and vegetables. It’s not that the genes themselves are changed by your diet, it’s that the molecules that interact with your DNA affect how active certain genes are.
Another study in a similar vein showed that stem cells (cells that choose how to differentiate) become either blood-producing cells in bone marrow or fat cells based on how much exercise the study subjects were getting.
Your genes can’t do their best work unless you help them. Keep making healthy choices. Your heart will thank you.
Dr. James Kneller treats atrial fibrillation, arrhythmia, and other heart conditions. He is an internationally recognized authority on cardiovascular health and personal development.
Alegría-Torres, J.A., Baccarelli, A., &Bollati, V. (2011).Epigenetics and lifestyle.
Epigenomics. 3(3): 267–277.