You Don’t Have to Wear Your Genes

“If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.” I’ve heard that more times than I can recall from patients with a family history of heart disease. But, as Gershwin wrote, it ain’t necessarily so-not by a long shot!

A recent study of over 55,000 participants followed for close to 20 years explored the connection between genes, lifestyle, and serious heart disease. Scientists examined each of the participants for 50 genes linked to heart disease. The results: a few simple lifestyle changes are able to knock 50% off the risk of even the most hostile heart genes.

You might imagine that the lifestyle changes needed to make a difference would be fairly extreme-a complete diet makeover or a grueling exercise training program. But what was found was something quite different-very modest changes were all that were needed to trim much of the excess hereditary risk.

The investigators studied the impact of 4 healthy lifestyle factors-and the bar was set low. No current smoking, no obesity (BMI less than 30), physical activity (even once a week counted), and a “healthy diet” (liberally defined as following at least 50% of common recommendations to eat more vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains, nuts, fish and less red meat, refined grains, sugar sweetened beverages). Individuals who met 3-4 of these criteria were described as having a “favorable” lifestyle while those with 0-1 were regarded as “unfavorable.”

The study did confirm that a bad inheritance had a negative impact across all groups. But the most astonishing finding was that regardless of how the genetics were stacked, lifestyle changes improved health outcomes dramatically.

For those at low genetic risk, a favorable lifestyle was associated with a nearly 50% lower heart risk than those with the poor lifestyle. But surprisingly, even in individuals who inherited the worst heart genes, a favorable lifestyle improved their cardiac outlook by about the same 50%.

The very positive and empowering conclusion is that regardless of whether you have inherited friendly or hazardous genes-a healthy lifestyle goes a very long way to better health.

The discouraging news is that fewer than 50% of the people studied met even the watered down criteria for a healthy lifestyle. But, on the flip side, therein lies an opportunity-the possibility of extending colossal health benefits to so many at low cost, and with major side-effects, all positive.

Your genes are hand me downs you can’t refuse-but the science shows you don’t always need to wear them!



Genetic Risk, Adherence to a Healthy Lifestyle, and Coronary Disease


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