Sometimes my kids love to blame me for things, such as who got my mom’s baby blue eyes. Luckily, these kinds of genetic traits don’t affect their health.
If you have been tempted to blame your family for your health problems, I’m afraid I have some bad news: your genes play a much smaller part in your health than you might think. Only about a third of health outcomes are based on your genes; the other two thirds are based on choices you can change.
Your genes are packaged up into your chromosomes. We each get one set of chromosomes from each biological parent. It is such an incredibly intricate process, that as I used to say when I was delivering babies, it is amazing it goes right as often as it does.
Hereditary and acquired mutations
What happens when cells divide and the chromosomes don’t get copied exactly right?
Errors or changes in the gene duplication process can lead to mutations. Sometimes, mutations can stay in a gene and get passed from parent to child; these are called hereditary mutations. Other times, behavior choices we make can cause changes; these are called acquired mutations.
Maybe nowadays, as we follow the unfolding of the pandemic, you are learning more than you ever wanted to know about mutations. Here’s the deal: acquired mutations happen all the time. Usually, though, our bodies have mechanisms to correct the mistakes. Even with hereditary mutations, we have other genes that control the turning on and off of possibly harmful genes. That is why even with a mutation in the BRCA gene – which can greatly increase the risk of breast and/or ovarian cancer – it does not mean that 100% of women will get sick.
Genes aren’t your health destiny
Why aren’t genes your health destiny? Because choices you make every day – usually small daily choices that you make over time – affect your body’s ability to handle the constant gene clean up process.
Here are some health choices that lower your risk of heart disease and cancer, even if you have a “family history”:
- Don’t smoke
- Protect your skin from the sun
- Take vitamin D
Why did I put “family history” in quotation marks? Because health conditions we have thought of up to now as “running in a family”, such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer, may have more to do with common exposures or health habits in a family. For example, you probably lived in the same areas, ate similar foods, and had similar exposure to toxins as other members of your household and community.
Does this mean that a person is to blame if they get an illness? No. Nothing in life is 100% guaranteed. Making all the best health choices does not guarantee perfect health, but my message to you: You have much more control than you think. Your genes are not your destiny. Go out and do your best. Just don’t blame Mom.