Editor’s note 2/6/2013: 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.
There are lots of things we can’t change, but our lifestyle isn’t one of them. Good thing, too — our weight, nutrition habits, and exercise behaviors impact us beyond whether we look good in a swim suit. They also influence our risk for many different diseases.
In the same way, our DNA also contributes to our risk for various diseases. It’s where our lifestyle and DNA intersect that we have the greatest potential for positive change. For instance, the knowledge that my genes put me at higher-than-average risk for heart disease may make me think twice about the extra slice of bacon (so long as it’s not within smelling distance!). And going light on the bacon for the long haul may ultimately lower my risk for many conditions besides heart disease.
So where might your genetic incentives be?
Extra pounds equate to extra risk for numerous health conditions. The obese are seven times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, three times more likely to develop gallstones, and twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease or venous thromboembolism (blood clots) compared to those at a healthy weight.
Each of these obesity-associated conditions has at least one 23andMe genetic report (see the links above). If you find that your genetics puts you at higher-than-average risk for one of these conditions, perhaps this knowledge will motivate you to keep your weight in check. To the fortunate few with lower-than-average genetic risk for all the conditions above, don’t grab that donut yet. Obesity still increases your risk compared to those at a healthy weight, and there are likely many additional genetic factors that are as-of-yet unknown but may contribute to your risk.
Poor nutrition, even discounting its effect on your waistline, certainly doesn’t keep the doctor away. People who consume red meat ten times per week or more have about a 50 percent higher risk for age-related macular degeneration, an eye condition that can lead to blindness. Furthermore, studies suggest that a diet high in fiber, vegetables, nuts, and foods typically found in Mediterranean cuisine is associated with 20-40 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease. Colorectal cancer is also linked with poor diet habits, and experts suggest that diets high in fiber and low in fat can lower your risk.
If you find that you are at increased genetic risk, this knowledge may help you prioritize which dietary changes to make. For example, a person who has a strong genetic risk for age-related macular degeneration might consider eating more fish, nuts, and leafy greens — foods linked to lower risk for that disease.
A gym membership (if actually used) may positively impact your health. For starters, exercise helps keep one’s weight in check; people who exercise regularly are up to 60 percent less likely to be overweight than people who don’t exercise.
Even beyond that, exercise can strengthen one of your most important muscles: your heart. People who don’t exercise are about twice as likely to develop coronary heart disease as people who exercise regularly. In women, walking just an hour a week is associated with 50 percent lower risk for coronary heart disease and in men, vigorous activity and playing sports may lower the risk for heart disease. If your genetics suggest you’re at higher than average risk for heart disease, take that as extra incentive to hit the gym regularly!
Poor exercise also influences your risk for type 2 diabetes. People who engage in moderate physical activity on a regular basis or simply walk for at least two and a half hours a week at a brisk pace are about 30 percent less likely to develop type 2 diabetes compared to people who don’t exercise. If your genetic report shows you are already at higher than average risk for type 2 diabetes, perhaps you may want to go the extra mile to make a change.
The Competitive Advantage
Unfortunately, health isn’t an even playing field. Just as some people have genetic variants associated with lower than average risk for disease, some are born with skinny genes (and can wear skinny jeans).
Very few genetic factors have been reliably linked to diet and exercise but some of the preliminary findings..
Whatever your health goals may be, we wish you success that outlasts the month. May this knowledge about your DNA — whether that be the genetics of disease risk or the genetics of losing weight — help you towards a fitter you.