The links between genes, lifestyle and disease

A variety of different disease conditions afflict people and what most of us are curious about is how much illness is caused by the genes we inherit versus the lifestyle we choose to live. Certainly, researchers have found that certain mutations of particular genes do, in fact, seem to increase the risk of particular diseases. The question, though, is if having a particular mutated gene guarantees that you will develop the disease in question.

In reality, though, the real picture is more complex than this and it seems more probable that there is some type of interaction between genetics and environment that triggers the development of most disorders. You can read more about genes and environment, and how these may interact to cause certain illnesses, by visiting this site: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK19932/.

How genetic mutations can cause disease

A genetic mutation is a change in the normal structure of a gene, which can sometimes have harmful effects. A gene is the code that is used to make protein in the body, and thus the genes on our DNA dictate what we look like and how our body functions. Sometimes such mutations are not harmful and may even be beneficial, but at other times, such mutations are harmful and can cause disease.

In fact, scientists discovered that a mutation in two genes, namely the genes called BRCA1 and BRCA2 significantly increase the risk of an individual developing breast cancer and possibly also ovarian cancer (https://www.breastcancer.org/risk/factors/genetics).

Another illness that can be and is inherited is cystic fibrosis, which is caused by a mutation in the cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator (CFTR) gene, which directly leads to the formation of proteins that do not work as they are supposed to (https://www.cff.org/What-is-CF/About-Cystic-Fibrosis/). This leads to problems with too much mucus accumulating in the lungs, eventually resulting in death as the person struggles to breathe. In order for a child to become ill with cystic fibrosis, though, they have to inherit the gene from both of the parents since it is a recessive allele.

Clearly, genetics do play a big role in what diseases or conditions a person may be susceptible to during their lifetime. However, genes are not the entire story, and scientists do believe that environmental factors also often play a big role in how likely a person is to become ill, particularly with certain diseases.

 

Can your lifestyle impact your odds when it comes to getting some diseases?

Some illnesses do appear to be related to lifestyle factors. In fact, the risks of developing both cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes appear to have quite a strong association with a person’s lifestyle. This is not to say that genes are not also having an effect on your chance of getting these illnesses, but there are at least some bad habits that people have that seems to increase the chances of developing these two disorders.

Living a sedentary lifestyle and eating food that is high in fat can lead to a person becoming overweight or even obese. Added to this, is the natural tendency for metabolism to slow as a person ages, and it becomes easy to understand why people become overweight as they enter middle-age and beyond.

Metabolic syndrome is when people are obese and have a lot of fat particularly in the abdominal region; this is linked with cardiovascular disease development and death (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0002934306002804). High levels of unhealthy LDL cholesterol is also linked to the condition and increases the odds of a person getting atherosclerosis, which is when plaques develop in the blood vessels. These plaques can lead to heart attacks and strokes. For some reason, both the type and the location of the fat are important risk factors for cardiovascular events, like heart attacks, and cerebrovascular events, like strokes.

Type 2 diabetes is also a condition that is more commonly associated with being overweight and a lack of exercise. In fact, some people are able to control the condition by exercising and controlling what and how much they eat. This suggests that lifestyle is an important variable that impacts your chances of getting type 2 diabetes. Controlling the condition with diet and exercise is preferable to taking medication which not only costs a lot of money, but also has side effects associated with it.

Can you find out what genetic mutations you have?

Genetic testing for fetuses has been done for many years now, and it is often a way to test if a child may have Down syndrome or some other genetic condition. However, today, there are techniques that can be done to screen for genetic mutations in adults.

Individuals can be screened for genes that are linked to stomach cancer, Huntington’s disease, cystic fibrosis and breast cancer.  The limitation is the cost and many people cannot afford to pay for such screening and health insurance companies are unlikely to cover the cost. In the future, the tests may become more affordable and may even be covered by health insurance.

What can you do about your lifestyle?

It is easier to change your lifestyle than your genes, although recently there was controversial news about gene editing in babies (see https://www.theguardian.com/science/2019/dec/04/china-gene-edited-baby-experiment-may-have-created-unintended-mutations). Genetic alterations done in a laboratory, such as gene editing methods, are controversial because many religious people believe that this is against the natural order of things. In addition, the process of gene editing is, in fact, complex and may have unintended harmful consequences.

Currently, people need to work on the lifestyle factors that we know are linked to illness. Eating nutritious and healthy foods and starting an exercise program or taking up a sport can help tremendously in preventing many illnesses from developing. Unfortunately, as people age, they tend to ignore these factors, to their detriment.

There are also options for cosmetic surgeries such as tummy tucks and VASER liposuction, which can be helpful in toning the body. Even after surgery, it is wise to change to a healthy lifestyle to maintain good health and improve your quality of life and health in the future.

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