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How You Can Reduce Your Risks of Genetic Disease

Does an immediate member of your family have heart disease or cancer? Since the medical history of people you share genes with can be a strong predictor of such health problems, does that mean you’re “doomed” to have the same?

Research shows the answer is: “Not necessarily.”

Here’s a little about genes and what you can do to reduce the chance that the “bad” ones will cause trouble.

About Genes

Genes are the building blocks of heredity. There are about 25,000 genes in each of the more than 15 trillion living cells in your body.

Genes are made up of DNA and act as instructions to make proteins. And those proteins are the basic components of molecules that shape our bodies.

In 2003, the entire human genome was sequenced, or decoded. The genome is the complete set of genetic instructions from some three billion chemical pairs that make up our genes. Since then, we’ve developed more awareness of the importance of genetics in our risks for certain diseases, though there is still a lot unknown.

Studies continue to connect our genetic profiles with our likelihood of having health problems. Genetics can be related to breast cancer, heart disease, depression, obesity and Alzheimer’s disease. These are considered multifactorial conditions, meaning multiple factors are involved in whether a person develops a disease, and sometimes the severity of the condition. Our genes, environment and other factors all play important roles in this process and interact together to lead to potential outcomes.

It used to be thought we were at the mercy of our genes. But we’re now finding that our genes can be influenced by our health and lifestyle decisions and habits.

Scientists are learning more about what controls chemical reactions in our genes. Some genes have switches that can be turned on or off (this is known as gene expression). These switches can either lead to development of disease or protect against it.

It seems that some of the very same things your doctor tells you to do to maintain a healthy lifestyle are also beneficial for switching genes the right way.

Making healthy lifestyle choices isn’t guaranteed to ward off disease, but turning the right genes on or off with simple behavior changes could make the difference in whether you’re prone to develop a disease or not. Remember, while you’re paying extra attention to your health, your genes are paying attention, too.

Four Healthy Lifestyle Changes to Cut Your Risk of Genetic Diseases

  1. Eat well for good nutrition: Eating well can “turn off” the genes that put people at higher risk for heart problems. Consider eating more raw fruits and veggies, leafy greens, nuts and dairy. Broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables, garlic and onions contain substances that allow tumor-suppressor genes to activate and fight cancer.
  2. Manage your stress: Consistent mindful meditation, a practice that encourages focusing attention on the present moment, can limit the expression (turning on) of genes associated with inflammation. Whether you’re a novice or experienced meditator doesn’t seem to matter. Simply focusing on an idea or doing a breathing technique could turn on or off these switches. Here’s one guided meditation you can try.
  3. Exercise: Gene changes can also take place with exercise. Genes are influenced by a process called methylation. In this process, clusters of atoms attach to the outside of a gene. The clusters make the gene more or less able to receive and respond to signals from the body. Physical activity can change the methylation on “enhancers,” which helps the genes act in a good way. So do your body a favor and go bike, swim or walk.
  4. Avoid smoking and other exposure to toxic chemicals: Many chemicals are known carcinogens (cancer-causers) that influence genes. For instance, when you smoke, carcinogens in tobacco cause anti-cancer genes to mutate so they no longer function effectively. Avoid smoking, keep your air clean, drink plenty of water and work up a good sweat during exercise. These steps may help you reduce toxins in your body.

If you’re concerned about specific genetic diseases, talk with your doctor about potential behavior changes and available medications or treatments. Other tests might help you learn more about your personal health. Your doctor may refer you to a genetic counselor for a more detailed discussion of the genetics of the disease and potential testing options. Though we have learned a lot about genetics and diseases over the years, we still have a lot more to learn. Research is ongoing and data continues to be collected to advance our understanding of what is in our control versus what controls us.

Meet the Author

Kate Zellmer, MS, CGC is a certified genetic counselor at Aurora Sinai Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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