Barfly Genetics


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Editor’s note: Pending an FDA decision, 23andMe no longer offers new customers access to health reports referred to in this post. Customers who received their health information prior to November 22, 2013 will still be able to see their health reports, but those who purchased after that time will only have access to ancestry information as well as access to their uninterpreted raw data. These new customers may receive health reports in the future dependent on FDA marketing authorization.

You probably know that smoking and excessive drinking are bad for you. But did you know that your genetics also factor into how much those vices can impact your health?

Healthy lifestyle choice — like avoiding cigarettes — make you less susceptible to a host to diseases. For instance, non-smokers live, on average, a decade longer than smokers. Genetics aside it just makes a lot of sense to avoid lighting up.

But genetics also plays a role. Your genes — regardless of your health habits — may put you at higher risk for certain diseases associated with smoking and drinking.  That can make the healthy choices you make that much more important.

Your genetic information, when taken together with information about your lifestyle and environment, will give you the most complete picture of your health risks.

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But, in a few cases, your genetics can increase the risks of smoking and drinking by much more than either risk factor alone. Heightening the importance of making healthy choices. Here are a few examples.

A variant in a single gene, alpha-1 antitrypsin, leads to deficiency in a protein that protects fragile lung tissue. This can put one at more risk for emphysema and liver disease. Because smoking can further reduce the levels of the protective protein, it can further increase the risks for lung disease.

Another variant in the ALDH2 gene causes a deficiency in its enzyme product — aldehyde dehydrogenase. Those lacking this enzyme are at increased risk for esophageal cancer, especially for those who smoke or drink.

The magnitude of the combined effect varies from study to study, but the basic finding that these three risk factors synergistically increase the risk of esophageal cancer is definitive.

In the case of smoking, a variant in the CHRNA gene is strongly associated with how many times you light up in an average day. In people with European ancestry, each copy of an A at the single-nucleotide polymorphism (SNP) rs1051730 is associated with smoking one more cigarette per day on average. It’s unclear if the association also holds true for people of African or Asian ancestry.

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As for drinking, a number of previous studies found an association between the SNP rs1800497 and alcoholism, with each copy of A at that location increasing a person’s odds of being alcoholic by 1.2 times.

Keep in mind that there are many of other conditions associated with smoking and drinking that are also impacted by your genetics. For instance, if you light up regularly, you’re putting yourself at a higher risk for such things as lung cancer, esophageal cancer, age-related macular degeneration, multiple sclerosis, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, venous thrombosis and coronary heart disease.

Heavy drinking increases your risk for esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer, and atrial fibrillation
esophageal cancer, colorectal cancer and atrial fibrillation.






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  • Marlena

    Your genetics can also do the opposite, i.e, there can no deterimental affects of excessive smoking and drinking – in my family people regualary smoked and drank and still lived well into the 80′s with nothing more than high blood pressure that was also easily controlled. Most of them quit their bad habits by their late 50′s or early 60′s after 40+ years of smoking and drinking.

    • St. Christopher

      You are certainly correct in this, Mariena. Both my parents smoked and drank regularly, and both died of accidents (no cancer, or anything else related to smoking). In fact, beyond genetics, this is the lie of second hand smoke — generations of Americans smoked heavily, with little impact on their families from second hand smoke. Yet, here we are, with countless inaccuracies about the need not to smoke around others, even when outside!! What lunacy.

      • Erin

        It’s pretty obvious that blowing out a poisonous smoke around others, can not be good for them…but what about how selfish and inconsiderate it is to force poisonous fumes on innocent bystanders. Other peoples smoking habits have ruined many an outside concert or day at the beach for me. Aside from the fact that I take very good care of my health and don’t appreciate others that don’t have enough consideration to go fumigate themselves in a closed up car… I just think it is very poor judgment to think that others would not mind breathing in that nasty smell and getting it in their clothes and hair. It’s kinda like spitting on someone.

  • Dick

    You think I’m going to quit for that?? Frankly these 10 years you can keep them. I better enjoy the first 73 in their fullest.

    • MariaR

      Best save up for all the co-pays and deductibles. Living fast is expensive at the end. I’ve managed the bills for two family members… but of course, you won’t have those pesky extra 10 years to spend with your family anyway.

  • Paul Clay

    I smoked for less than a decade, but the number one risk factor for bladder cancer is smoking according to all research. It is the delivery system for arsenic and other chemicals that damage and permanently change the lining of the bladder. I discovered my cancer early, and it was sugically removed; however, there is a high risk of it returning so that i have regualar scopes to catch any recurrence, and have had one. It is not life threatening but sure is a nuisance.
    I learned from my 23andme results that I had increased risk factors in 6 of the 9 genes that are implicated in bladder cancer.
    Wish I had never smoked the first one!

    • elysummers

      Also the number one factor for pancreatic cancer. Many people associate ONLY lung cancer with smoking, but smoking destroys your cells in such a way that they are able to allow cancer cells in more aggressively. Congrats for quitting. I know how hard that is.

  • darkeyes

    GG for CHRNA3 – so I guess that’s why no one in my family (except my caucasian grandfather, who quit many years before he died) smoked or smokes. I will have to look this up… I mean, why? I’m not totally European, but I guess this wasn’t studied in other people.
    I also have the flush gene for alcohol. Already knew that. It makes drinking somewhat unpleasant, so its easy for me to have a soda at a bar.

  • toby

    I must have it all to, for the bad. At least for some, the lung one not so much cause my mothers lungs were always, always o.k.. And she smoked for 50 years. But she did get breast, colon, land liver cancers. Also had pullups in throat, but not cancer, they said.

  • Michael

    This information is interesting but the science is taken out of context. The genetic information is just a part of the whole–it’s more of a general outline. You can’t look at genetic markers and then say, “Oh, see… I’ll be fine because I have or don’t have) such-and-such.” It doesn’t work that way. It is actually better to stay away from these things that carry health risks. If you can’t or won’t then better learn moderation. Genetic diagnostics for your biological make-up are not a diagram of what you are capable (or not capable) of being able to do (or not do) or able to get away with. They are only a general outlay of your physiological structure mostly having a statistical relevance compared to tohers and other groups. We still have many, many years before we are able to interpret our genetic composition with accuracy reaching into lifetime forecasting. Right now these diagnostic results may be interesting to know but they are not accurate predictors by themselves… far from it.

    • Johnny G.

      Michael, correct. There is also the results we’ve seen by “switching on” another gene protein matrix that even when the “antagonist” is responsive (cancer is formed in a highly probable case – all factors being equal) – the response of another gene expression inhibits the beginning of metatastic hyperdysplasia. In other words, the “complementary” strand of DNA can reduce the virulence of the malignancy originating strand to varying extents. What would cause the complimentary strand to “switch on” first – if this could even prevent malignant growth or other diseases – remains to be seen. Any time one protein block is excised it needs to be replaced with another or the whole cell can be discarded as atypical and unable to maintain itself. Garbage. Replacing it with something other than what will create the cell say – without the fear of expressing the malignant gene – is the challenge. As with the “Y” Chromosome – being only one from the male gamete – there are only so many to choose from. So a “defect’ – at this time – must be allowed to render out at least a “functioning” cell albeit one that can bring disease or cancer to the body it creates. With the new Ion Chambered Pulse electron microscope – watching how RNA and virus’s do this – has brought new ideas to both the end of cancer(s) and viral recombinants that are faced by humanity today. This is ongoing on several fronts.

  • Allie from Albany

    I made the decision never to smoke when I discovered how hard it was for me to give up sucking my thumb. Yeah, I was eleven.

    It was only later that my family showed a lot of members got lung cancer.

    Still, a lot of life is luck. At age 58 I was diagnosed with stage 3 III ovarian cancer. I’ll be lucky if I live to sixty two and can collect my pension with a good survivor’s benefit for my husband.

    Ha ha. Jokes on me. P.S. What causes ovarian cancer? Having too many periods! Having fewer than ten children!

    • sanjosemike

      Allie from Albany: Please don’t excoriate yourself because you were diagnosed with ovarian cancer. it had nothing to do with your personal habits.

      As you know some causes are genetic (BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes), but they do not apply to the majority of patients who have this condition.

      I am so very sorry this happened to you. There just is no fairness regarding this. I wish you luck!

      sanjosemike

  • Carol

    My father smoked a pipe,he died aged 75
    My sister smoked, she developed breast cancer, died aged 50
    Another sister died never smoked, pancreatic cancer died aged 60+
    I now have cancer due to a blood transfusion given in hospital which was then called non A non B hepatitis.This induced a thyroid problem, as well as portal hypertension. Now via a cat scan they find a tumor in the In a badly sclerosed liver, and recently, 3 nodules in the lung. I’m 74, esophageal varicies are probably next. Cigarettes? I think not. Hep C..The medical profession knew the blood was contaminated, but considered it benign, later they found it could take years to cause damage.
    I grew up in England, I remember dripping (lard) sandwiches, suet puddings, (suet being fat from around the cows kidney. People lived to a ripe old age. Cows were grass fed roaming the fields, as were sheep. Chickens were all free range. Now? Animals are injected with hormones, crowded in cattle sheds, pigs cannot move in the cages they are shoved into, chickens are raised in batteries. Additives are part of the food chain for a longer shelf life. FDA? Bloody laughable. Nothing is in it’s pure form anymore. Somewhere, this has to come into the equation. I don’t dispute your information.
    My point is, We are contaminated by available foods. Then there’s Imported foods that are only randomly inspected. Farm raised fish? Who knew??? I think I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.

    • Darcy

      Thank you Carol. I too wonder when our frankenfood will become part of the equation. Maybe it iwll happen when we have a universal health care system so we can really look into issues without the fear of being sued or delaying solutions while CEO’s play the blame game. And lets not forget the toxins from “our progress” in our environment, too.

  • Noah N.

    Thats funny because I have a grandfather who is 97 years old who drank a liter of whiskey and smoked 2+ packs of cigarettes a day for almost 60 years and his lungs, liver, etc. are perfectly fine.

  • charles

    This article reminds me of my grandmother. She has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day since she was 15 and she will be turning 80 this October. He health isn’t perfect but she has never had cancer or emphysema. For that matter she doesn’t have any chronic diseases. Certain people just seem to be genetically more resistant to the harmful affects of alcohol and tobacco.

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