DNA + Lifestyle = New DNA

August 28th, 2010

By Dr. David Katz, Director of Yale University’s Prevention Research Center

We have long known that lifestyle has a powerful influence on health across a wide array of outcomes. It is not news to you that eating well, being active, controlling your weight, managing stress and not smoking, for instance, can influence your fate.

But we have tended to think in terms of “nature versus nurture” — with lifestyle and genetic influences on health as independent and potentially competing forces. This study, and others like it, ostensibly change the game. They suggest that lifestyle and genetics are not independent after all, but interact. Even our genes are influenced by lifestyle choices. We can, it seems, nurture nature.

To a Preventive Medicine specialist like me, this is of profound importance. Complacency and fatalism are enemies of disease prevention. For many people, the notion that their medical destiny is written in their genes is a disincentive to take matters into their own hands.

The lifestyle intervention in GEMINAL was rather intense, allowing only 10 percent of calories from dietary fat, and requiring more than an hour and a half of exercise and meditation daily. We don’t yet know if less intensive lifestyle approaches would influence genes as this program did. And there is only so much certainty that can derive from a pilot study, limited to 30 men with prostate cancer. More research is required to prove what the current body of evidence suggests. But what it suggests is quite provocative enough for now: take good enough care of yourself, and even your genes will get a makeover.

What we have in this study and others like it is nothing less than an indication that the concept of “nature versus nurture” is flawed and obsolete. Genetic influence is not walled off from the world. Epigenetic influences prevail.

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