Overcoming bad genes
National Sons and Daughters Day on August 11 is a good excuse to celebrate all the things you love about your children, including those you’ve passed down to them: your crooked smile, your curly hair, your goofy sense of humor.
But there are some genetic legacies – like a family history of diabetes, heart disease or cancer – that would be better off left behind. Fortunately, there are proven steps you and your children can take to combat so-called “bad” genes.
- Choose a healthy lifestyle. Some diseases can be traced back to a single, faulty gene. (Genes are the inherited segments of DNA that contain instructions for each of our unique physical features.) Many diseases, though, are a lot more complex.Experts believe conditions such as obesity and heart disease are caused by the interaction of dozens or even hundreds of genes, combined with environmental factors, such as diet or exposure to chemicals (such as those in cigarettes).There’s good news in that complexity. If the environment can harm us, it can also help us. By making sound lifestyle choices, we can reduce or potentially prevent the expression of certain risks embedded in our DNA.A healthy diet and regular physical activity have been shown to slash the risk of all sorts of diseases, including diabetes, cancer, heart disease and obesity. Researchers have shown, for example, that physical activity can offset the effects of one gene associated with obesity. A 2014 study found that a diet high in fried foods may interact with obesity-related genes, boosting obesity risk. Or, to put a positive spin on it: Making smart diet choices, such as limiting fried foods, might help protect you from your genetic inheritance.Healthy choices go beyond diet and exercise. Alcohol and tobacco use have been shown to increase the likelihood of cancer. You can minimize that risk by quitting smoking (or, better yet, not starting) and keeping alcohol consumption to a safe minimum (no more than two drinks a day for men and one a day for women).
- Watch for early warning signs. If you know problems such as heart disease or cancer run in your family, consider that a red flag. With that knowledge, you and your children – and your physicians – can be on the lookout for early signs or symptoms of disease.Early and regular screenings for certain conditions can save lives. For instance, your doctor might recommend screening tests, such as colonoscopies (to detect colorectal cancer), mammograms (to detect breast cancer) or PSA blood tests (to detect prostate cancer), earlier than might be recommended for people who aren’t at increased risk. Early detection means early treatment, which often means an improved outcome.
- Explore genetic testing. Genetic tests can help doctors identify gene abnormalities that put some individuals at increased risk for certain diseases. The tests can also help people determine the likelihood of passing on certain conditions to their children. More than 1,000 genetic tests are available to doctors and patients, and that number is growing every year.Prenatal testing and newborn screenings can identify certain genetic disorders, such as Down syndrome, before and shortly after a baby is born. Genetic testing applies to adults as well. Tests are available to look for genetic changes linked to several types of cancer, such as BRCA genes (which increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancers in women, as well as other cancer types in both men and women).If you’re concerned about your family history of cancer – and what it might mean for your children – learn more about genetic testing for cancer risk. But don’t panic. Remember: Your genes are only part of your family’s story.