Making healthy decisions may not be foolproof, but it could mean the difference between having a significant health issue and avoiding one
Since researchers cracked the human genome some 10 years ago, we've had a heightened awareness of the importance of genetics in our risk for certain diseases and disorders, both mental and physical. Subsequent studies have continued to find connections between our genetic profiles and our likelihood of developing health problems, from breast cancer and heart attack to depression, obesity, and Alzheimer's disease. Some people choose to undergo genetic tests to determine whether they carry copies of specific genes that put them at higher risk for various diseases. Knowing that one possesses copies of "cancer genes," for example, can lead to some tough decisions about where to go from there.
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A bright spot, however, is that what's also become clear in recent years is that genetics is only half of the discussion. Our lifestyles, as doctors are keen on telling us, are important in increasing or reducing our risk of various diseases. Research in the new field of epigenetics is finding that our lifestyle choices -- the foods we put in our bodies, the chemicals we are exposed to, how active we opt to be, even our social environments -- can actually alter our health at the level of the gene. These choices can have big effects on our risk for disease, even if our genes seem to be working against us. So before throwing your hands up and saying, "What can I do? It's all up to my genes," read on.
HOW CHOICES CAN CHANGE MOLECULES
Smoking is a familiar example of how our behaviors can affect our genes. We know smoking is linked to poor health outcomes. But how does this work molecularly-speaking? In this case, the carcinogens in cigarette smoke directly affect the molecules in our bodies, triggering the growth of cancer by mutating our anti-cancer genes so that they no longer function effectively.