Nature vs Nurture: Most Important Factors in Health
You can pick your friends, you can change your diet, but you can’t control your genes.
Living a long and healthy life depends on three main factors: lifestyle, environment and genetics. But which one is most important?
“They all contribute,” says Dr. Russell Swerdlow, director of the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center. “But the jury is out if it is an equal contribution.”
Swerdlow tackles the genetic component of aging while trying to answer the longevity question at the University of Kansas Medical Center’s Neurodegenerative Disorders Program. Swerdlow’s laboratory studies the interaction between genes and cell energy metabolism.
The human body is made up of cells, which constantly break down and require the body to fix them by dividing and replicating. Each time a cell divides, fragments of DNA called telomeres become shorter, Swerdlow says. When these telomeres get too short, the cells can’t divide and repair themselves. This shortening process is associated with aging, cancer and a higher risk of death.
Telomeres are like a bomb’s fuse, says Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at Saint Luke’s Mid America Heart Institute. “When that fuse is gone, the party is over,” O’Keefe says. “You are not going to be here in a few months.”
In addition to telomeres, scientists have identified genes that increase the risk of breast, ovarian, prostate and pancreatic cancers, as well as indicate the risk factors for dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s not usually just one gene,” said Dr. Tim Kamerzell, a primary care physician at Overland Park Regional Medical Center.
Some people are genetically predisposed to obesity while others who eat the same diet do not have cholesterol problems, he says. And patients sometimes blame chronic illnesses on their genes when the truth lies behind poor lifestyle choices.
“Genetics get a bad rap,” Kamerzell says. “As we learn more about genetics, it appears that lifestyles play a bigger role.”
Too often, doctors hear patients say, “It runs in my family.” Sometimes a family history of heart disease is simply a history of overeating, inactivity and smoking, as well as living in unhealthy environment.
If you adopt your parents’ lifestyle, Kamerzell says, you will also adopt their health problems. Although you can’t choose your parents, you can choose a healthy lifestyle.
“Genes load the gun,” O’Keefe says. “But lifestyle pulls the trigger.”