Due in part to the human genome project, the public has become increasingly interested in the field of genetics; in particular how genes influence their own health and well-being. Genetic testing is much more accessible today with third party companies making their services available to the general public. It’s an expensive option but more and more individuals and couples are seeking out genetic testing in order to confirm or rule out suspected genetic conditions or help determine their chance of passing on a genetic disorder. Not surprisingly, newspapers, magazines, and other forms of social media have become an important vehicle through which the general public is being educated about this topic.
With a quick Google search I found numerous articles, which mention genes in relation to a specific condition or illness.
"Overweight? Maybe You Really Can Blame Your Genes" - The New York Times
"Study Shows Third Gene as Indicator for Breast Cancer" - The New York Times
"Variant gene linked to heart attacks, strokes" - Chicago Tribune
Stumbling across a few of these articles from time to time gave me the push to comment on this area of research. I’m not here to critique "how" or "why" this research is being done, but instead hope to start a conversation about how this information affects our attitudes and beliefs about our genes and the role they play in our future health and well-being.
I'd like to preface the remainder of this post by saying that this is an area of interest for me and nothing more. I am not a geneticist however, some formal and self directed learning have led to my opinions on the topic of gene research and testing which I will detail below.
When it comes to gene research my issue isn’t with the research itself but with the way in which popular news outlets oversimplify and or misconstrue information. Many conditions are influenced by combinations of inherited genetic traits, gene mutations and chromosomal abnormalities. If a more serious medical condition runs in your family (i.e.: sickle cell anemia, Tay-Sachs disease etc.) there is undoubtedly value in genetic testing. However if you find out that you have a particular gene mutation, which predisposes you to developing a specific disease, it’s important to realize that the genes you are born with do not necessarily determine your fate.
Epigenetics is a field of study that looks at how your DNA is expressed without changes in your actual DNA sequence. Genes can be turned on and turned off as a result of your internal (stress levels, what you eat) AND external (physical activity, urban vs. rural) environment.
Now maybe the comments (or lack thereof) on how epigenetics can play a role with a particular condition is due to the lack of available information on how our internal and external environment affect, for instance, a new marker for a condition. Personally, if I'm going to read an article detailing yet another genetic factor that could affect my health, I'd like to read something actionable at the end. The proactive role an individual can play in their health is essential.
For instance, a breast cancer article in The New York Times reported that 35% of the subjects with a PALB2 gene mutation were likely to develop breast cancer by age 70, where the lifetime risk in the general population is 12%. It's easy to see how this information could negatively affect ones well being if they were known to have the gene mutation. The article doesn't however, comment on how studies have shown a reduction in lifetime risk of developing breast cancer by 18% in people who exercise 1.25 to 2.5 hours per week or that obesity and alcohol consumption also increase the likelihood of developing this condition.
Fortunately, we're also seeing the occasional article supporting the very thing that addresses my concerns:
"Why Genetic Tests Don't Help Doctors Predict Your Risk of Disease" - Time Magazine
This post was intended to emphasize the fact that in many cases, the future of your health can be largely influenced by your lifestyle and environment. There is so much exciting research emerging in the field of epigenetics, alternative health care and mind-body medicine which gives new hope to those carrying genetic predispositions to or already suffering from chronic illness or disease.