Genetics and you

by | Jul 17, 2018 | Longevity

Genetics leave a breadcrumb trail for your descendants to follow. Your achievements are not only a reflection of your life, but incentive for others to duplicate the pattern, particularly when it comes to achieving a high-quality long life.

Genetics is a factor when it comes to understanding our physical and biological strengths and weaknesses. Certain diseases are inherited, such as heart disease, but the shift toward healthy diets and exercise creates a new playing field that is coached by medical breakthroughs and surgical procedures to combat pre-existing and genetically inherited diseases, giving us all reason to hope for centenarian status. While understanding DNA is not at the top of everyone’s list, it’s helpful to know it is often referred to as the ‘molecule of heredity.’

The Human Genome Project was organized in the late 1980s and is a vast undertaking created solely for the purpose of exploring the genetic roadmap of human DNA. A book entitled, “Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project,” explains that during the race to pin down the human sequence, the focus has shifted from discovering how alike we are to how different we are from each other. The ability to find disease markers in human DNA is creating a major shift toward preventive medicine, with the ability to increase the quality of life across the board. Efforts to expand this knowledge base have resulted in the recent and ongoing harvest and testing of tens of thousands of human DNA samples. By prioritizing, scientists can now begin to identify the DNA markers that make certain individuals more prone to certain diseases in a quest to discover which drugs benefit particular patients. The project has been active since the Clinton administration, and continues to make strides in understanding DNA, the building blocks of life.

“But while genes are certainly an important component of aging, they may not be the most relevant factor,” writes Alice Park in a cover story for Time Magazine, entitled “How to Live 100 Years.”

“The good news is that according to animal studies, only about 30% of aging is genetically based, which means that the majority of other variables are in our hands. Not only can getting such factors under control help slow the aging process before it starts, it can also help those who are already in their golden years improve their fitness and strength.”

The article also shares findings of recent studies showing that when seniors from ages 65 to 75 exercise with resistance weights, they can improve their scores on cognitive tests of memory and decision-making. Research proves that when people over 65 participate in regular physical activity, they lower the chance of developing cognitive impairment.

Dr. Bruce Yankner, a researcher at Harvard Medical School, is studying what distinguishes brains that make it to 100 years with limited cognitive decline from those that succumb to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia before age 85. This is a huge area of concern, since upward of 16 million people will develop Alzheimer’s disease by the year 2020, if a cure isn’t found. Yankner zeroed in on genes in the frontal cortex – which are involved in higher learning, planning and goal setting – of people ages 24 to 106. That’s a big chronological span, and it netted a big genetic haul: the research confirmed our genes start to slow down after age 40. Using that information as a starting point, Yankner’s group is trying to determine just what those genes do to affect individual aging processes. Now more than ever, the medical community is focused on pinpointing links and cures to the genetic disposition of Alzheimer’s disease, since it is on the horizon for over 16 million people at the rate of one new diagnoses every 76 seconds.

Yankner points to extenuating circumstances that are also a player in the picture. He states, “DNA is not destiny. Just as you can keep your body fit with good lifestyle habits and by avoiding pollutants, toxins and carcinogens, you may be able to keep your genes healthier. Environmentally triggered alterations in genes – known as epigenetic changes – can affect when a gene is activated, how robustly it is turned on and how it interacts with neighboring genes. Free radicals provide a very good case study of how epigenetic processes play out.”

Epigenetic inheritance may not be as easy to detect as DNA traits are, and it can manifest more quickly in response to signals from the environment and direct experiences of parents, which adds another dimension to the modern picture of evolution.