Monday, January 21, 2013

How Do You Stay Healthy and Prevent Disease?

People expect fast answers to even tough questions, and in this era of internet access, such answers are usually readily available. Therefore, one would expect to easily find the answer to the question posed in the title above.  Alas, if that was only true.

A new study sheds light on why I find it difficult to tell people with any certainty that a certain course of action will definitively keep them healthy. This is a result of apparent contradictions I read about all the time. It seems that some people who engage in unhealthy behaviors are healthier than others who swear by a healthy lifestyle. It's like the old philosophical religious question of why do bad things happen to good people?  It turns out there is a reason when it comes to health.

One of the toughest questions for genetics researchers is not only how to identify which genes are responsible for causing a disease, but what turns these genes on or off? More simply put, why does one person get a disease while another with identical genes does not?

For example, the other twin of an identical pair whose sibling develops rheumatoid arthritis only has a twelve percent probability of developing the disease. Multiple studies support the notion that the presence of a gene does not always promise the manifestation of disease. That is why when it comes to health, we can not look at our parents, our siblings, or our children to know definitively what will happen to us.

In an important paper, researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and the Karolinska Institute in Sweden published a method to evaluate an important gene-regulation system: chemical tags that tell genes to be active or not. Their approach was to compare 354 newly diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis patients and 337 healthy people who served as controls. Researchers reviewed both groups’ white blood cells, examining their DNA for chemical tags — methyl groups — that could attach themselves to genes and turn them on or off. 

This involved more than just studying the isolated genes. While it is well established that a gene can remain stable, the chemical tags that turn the genes on and off are not so predictable. These chemical tags' activities can be affected by the environment, medications, or even the actions of other, distant genes. Chemical tags can develop as a consequence of a disease or be responsible for it. 

In the study, researchers found that even when the gene variations that are associated with developing rheumatoid arthritis were present in an individual, the absence of certain chemical tags resulted in no disease.

So what does this all mean? Basically, it means we still have a lot to figure out on how to precisely prevent diseases such as autoimmune diseases and cancer because we know little about these chemical tag triggers. 

So what does one do in the interim?  Play the odds. By that. I mean follow the conventional wisdom of eating a mostly plant-based diet, avoiding processed foods full of chemical additives whenever possible, limiting environmental exposure to other chemicals when also possible and practical, staying physically active, managing stress effectively, getting adequate sleep, being socially engaged, and finding meaning and purpose in life.  Following such advice offers no guarantees, but based on current knowledge it does seem to shift the odds in your favor. Also, avoid medications and supplements unless prescribed by your physician. (Even when prescribed, it will do you well to understand and question why you need it.)

Until scientists discover how to control the chemical tags that turn genes on and off, that's the best advice I can give you. But as always, don't take my advice. Seek guidance from a physician who knows your medical history and life-situation and can best counsel you. 

Don't try to figure out health on your own. It's still too complicated.

1 comment:

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