With the Rootstech 2022 conference here, people are once again looking into their ancestry for a myriad of reasons; whether it’s to understand their origins, connect with long-lost relatives, or just to satiate their curiosity.
While the conference will be mostly covering stories on tradition, heritage, culture, and news on the industry of ancestry, there is another question that warrants further exploration: How family history and one’s DNA contribute to personal health and wellness.
The United States has an extensive history with the question of how bloodlines and genetics affect the individual. The Eugenics Movement largely focused on the since disproved idea of rooting out potential disease, illness, and ‘undesirable traits’ from the general population through selective and forced sterilization. It also serves as a dark stain in history as a contributing factor to World War II, and a reason for discrepancies in Public Health that continue to affect the field to this day.
Aside from this, the topic has also been explored in popular forms of media, such as in books like Brave New World, and movies like Gattaca. Indeed, genetics and health have always been a topic worth exploring, especially as our technology continues to advance. Here, we’ll explore what is currently known to factor and not factor into your health.
Foremost, we’ll have to address diseases that are inherited. When you are born, you are born with two sets of genes (23 pairs of chromosomes with the last one being the iconic sex chromosomes). There are exceptions to epigenetics, otherwise known as expressivity in genes or the likelihood that the inherited traits in your DNA determine whether you are born with the disease.
With inherited diseases, carrying two mutated, recessive genes is more than likely to affect your overall health. Examples of inherited diseases include sickle cell disease, cystic fibrosis, and Huntington’s disease (Fishman, 2020). One of the central themes behind Gattaca was that technology allowed parents to eliminate the chance for their child to develop inherited diseases through gene manipulation (which then only progressed to eliminating undesired traits altogether).
Despite the name, however, heritable diseases are not always inherited. For example: If both parents were only carriers of a mutated gene (meaning they only have one gene and are not affected themselves), there is only a 25% chance for their child to get two mutated genes and be affected by the inherited disease. So for the disease to skip generations, or be phased out from a family’s bloodline altogether through natural means (Sanders, 2016).
Preemptive screening is also potentially effective for mitigating the effects of inherited diseases. Early detection and awareness of a genetic predisposition can allow for early diagnosis and management / preventative action prior to the inherited disease expressing itself fully. (Murray, 2021). The ability to detect and start treatments preemptively can improve one’s overall quality of life, and promote longevity and improved function for a longer duration into one’s life.
Health Effects and Predisposition
Outside of heritable diseases, genetics plays an additional role in health in other ways. You can be predisposed to other health conditions that are much more common, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. There is a reason family history is a measurement tool for risk assessment in doctor’s offices: Pre-existing conditions in your family history increase your own risk for developing those same risks (Wu, 2015). When a family member expresses why you should be careful of certain things because a condition “runs in the family”, they are most often referring to these pre-existing conditions.
Even if undiagnosed with any of these conditions, research shows that those with a family health history of certain diseases are affected health and fitness wise. Overall fitness capability, such as maximum treadmill time, differs between those whose parents have diabetes, for example, then those whose parents don’t; and will often exhibit higher BMI as well (Goodrich, 2011). Genetics and family history appears to play a significant role in health and wellness, but there is still potential to counteract genetic predisposition.
Understanding how family history contributes to your personal health and that pre-existing conditions can affect you is a powerful informational tool that can help you adjust your own health behaviors. This effectively limits the risk for developing health conditions that you would otherwise be more prone to. Studies have shown that adjusting health behavior is a strong protective factor for those who are predisposed to health and disease.
Environmental and Protective Factors
Affirmative action taken against predisposed health risks has shown a myriad of studies that have proven to be effective in protecting against said health risks. This has to do with epigenetics, or how your body adapts to read your DNA, depending on your environment or behaviors. Actions taken to protect against increased health risks changes how your genes are expressed, including those that carry your increased risk for family health conditions (Sanders, 2016). This is the nurture element of human development, and the human body’s ability to adapt to changes in its environment.
There are many actions someone could take to influence their epigenetics and gene expression. Not smoking versus smoking; exercising regularly versus being sedentary; eating healthy versus not monitoring what you’re eating. An example of healthier lifestyle choices protecting against genetic predisposition to illness and disease includes the FIT Project study by Mahmound Rifai et al. This trial showed that higher cardiorespiratory fitness proved to be a very strong protective factor against cardiovascular disease, regardless of family history of heart disease and gene predisposition (2017). This trial included over 50,000 patients, with representative sample groups of men and women of different races.
With heritable diseases being a key exception to how genetics influences health and wellness, DNA appears to have some varying degrees of influence over your wellbeing.
While family history of disease and health conditions can affect your health baseline, it is possible to break away from that baseline and improve your own health conditions long term. We are again faced with the question of nature versus nurture — both play a role in your health state. Taking the time however to nurture positive health behaviors can pay back in dividends overtime.
However, this may be easier for some more than others. As always, the ability to nurture positive health behaviors depends on several environmental factors, such as socioeconomic status, occupation, location, and accessibility to support facilities such as grocers that supply quality food; outdoor spaces that are both safe and convenient to use; and the affordability of local gyms and recreation centers.
For heritable diseases, early detection and screening are absolutely vital for maintaining a good quality of life. Understanding heritable diseases and your family history would allow you to seek treatment or means to limit the influence of heritable diseases for not only yourself, but your family.
We are not utterly bound by our DNA. Humans have always been remarkably adaptable in any environment, and that extends to our internal environment too.
Al Rifai, M., Patel, J., Hung, R. K., Nasir, K., Keteyian, S. J., Brawner, C. A., Ehrman, J. K., Sakr, S., Blumenthal, R. S., Blaha, M. J., & Al-Mallah, M. H. (2017). Higher Fitness Is Strongly Protective in Patients with Family History of Heart Disease: The FIT Project. The American Journal of Medicine, (130)3, 367–371. https://doi-org.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/10.1016/j.amjmed.2016.09.026
Fishman, S. (2020) 6 Most Common Hereditary Diseases. Healthplace Marketplace LLC. Retrieved from HealthgradesGoodrich, K., Crowley, S., Lee, D., Sui, X., Hooker, S., Blair, S. (2011). Associations of cardiorespiratory fitness and parental history of diabetes with risk of type 2 diabetes. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice (95) 425-431. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.diabres.2011.10.045
Murray, M.F. et al. (2021). DNA-based screening and population health: a points to consider statement for programs sponsoring organizations from the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics (ACMG). Genetics in Medicine (23)989-995. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41436-020-01082-wSanders, M.F., Bowman, J.L. (2016). Genetic Analysis: An Integrated Approach. Pearson Education Limited (2nd Ed. Global).
Wu, R., Orlando, L. (2015). Implementation of health risk assessments with family health history: barriers and benefits. Postgraduate Medical Journal (91) 508-513. http://pmj.bmj.com/
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