Re-Writing Your Book of Life
By Mark Pettus, MD - Published in Berkshire Eagle, July 6, 2015
Your mother has diabetes. Your father has high blood pressure. Depression runs in both sides of your family. Are these the genes you inherited? Will you struggle with your health because of a bad roll of the genetic dice?
Until just recently, scientists thought that a family’s health history was written in stone – that there was little any of us could do to avoid the diseases that challenged our parents and grandparents.
My parents had diabetes and heart disease, and both died before the age of 70. I wasn’t surprised when my own blood pressure, cholesterol and sugar levels began rising in my mid-40s. I figured that the disease chapter in my book of life had been written generations ago. Nothing I could do.
But I was wrong.
Today, research in a dynamic field of science called epigenetics is proving that we are not prisoners of our DNA. In fact, exactly how we live our life is a far more accurate predictor for heart disease and other conditions than a family’s health history.
This awareness is among the many surprising outcomes of the Human Genome Project, which sequenced and analyzed the 23,000 genes in the human body. Scientists initially hoped the work would isolate the specific genes which cause disease. Instead, they discovered that “disease genes,” such as inherited illnesses like cystic fibrosis, are actually very rare. What is common in everyone, however, is a pattern of subtle typos in the spelling of our genetic code that puts us at greater risk for certain inherited conditions.
Whether or not these risks turn into actual disease depends a lot on how we live our lives. We have choice, and we have control. What we don’t have is widespread understanding of how much our choices matter.
In 1900, less than five percent of the population was obese. Four generations later, 70 percent of us are over-weight. Similarly, diabetes was rare at the turn of the 20th century. Today, it’s at epidemic levels, with 40 to 45 percent of people diagnosed as pre-diabetic or diabetic. Despite stunning advances in medicine, we are sicker than any generation that came before us.
What happened in the last 100 years – a mere blink of an eye compared with the 200,000 years that preceded us? Scientists believe we have moved further and further away from humanity’s book of life, which was shaped and refined over the last 7,000 generations. During all of that time, people ate food in its most natural form, walked everywhere, slept more, faced relatively less stress, were exposed to few toxins, and depended on strong family and community ties to survive.
Little of that changed over thousands of generations until about 150 years ago. And while our book of life is adaptable, our environment changed more quickly than our ability to adapt. The most essential ways in which we live our lives bear no resemblance to how people lived just a few generations ago.
We eat processed foods, sleep less, exercise way less, face lots of stress, are exposed to environmental toxins and often feel isolated from others. Scientist studying epigenetics believe that these “environmental inputs” are the triggers that turn a risk for disease into the disease itself.
This is a profound wake-up call. We’ve known for years that diet and exercise improve health and quality of life. But now we know more. Nutritious, natural foods, exercise, a good night’s sleep, deliberate techniques to reduce stress and other lifestyle changes can prevent the onset of diseases that run in your family. In essence, you can re-write a few chapters of your book of life that didn’t turn out so well for your parents. Better yet, you can be the author of a whole new book.
If you are lucky, you inherited your Mom’s beautiful smile. You don’t also have to inherit her diabetes.
Mark Pettus, MD, is Director of Medical Education and Medical Director of Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems. He is the author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate For Quality Health Care, and It’s All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health.