Is it true that our DNA equals our destiny? Or can we positively impact our risk of disease?
It was previously thought that certain conditions or diseases were simply 'genetic.' If someone had high blood pressure or had some illness, they attributed it to 'getting older' or they simply inherited it, like an old family sweater passed down through the gene pool. “I have high blood pressure just like my mom,” someone might say.
However, is it true that our DNA equals our destiny? Or can we modify our odds of disease?
The study of epigenetics looks at how our environment or lifestyle influences our genes. Lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical environment, sleep, exercise, and stress levels can eventually cause gene modifications that will turn certain genes on or off over time.
Research from The Danish Twin Study1 has shown that more than 90 percent of our longevity is determined by the choices we make—not our genetics. People can have a genetic predisposition for certain diseases, but the gene or set of genes may not be expressed if it is not triggered by these epigenetic factors.
In that study, researchers found that factors such as smoking, exposure to sunshine, depression and low socioeconomic status are known to contribute to aging. Being married, high social status, lack of depression and a low body mass index (BMI) are factors that positively impact aging.
Other research from The Okinawa Centenarian Study2 showed that there is no reason why the majority of us can’t live at least 100 healthy years. Okinawa is one of the largest islands off the coast of Japan, and that study confirmed the concept of epigenetics; it is the interaction between our genes and our environment that determines our health.
When Dr. Suzuki, the Principal Investigator of the Okinawa study, first started his research in 1975, he found an unusual number of centenarians to be in extraordinarily healthy shape. They were lean, youthful-looking, energetic, and had low rates of heart disease and cancer. The Okinawans have among the lowest mortality rates in the world from a multitude of chronic diseases of aging.
The question becomes, how can we positively influence our environment?
Looking at how our behaviors correlate to telomere length is one way. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces.3 Without telomeres, DNA strands become damaged and our cells can't do their job.
Several studies have linked chronic stress to shorter telomeres.4
It’s no secret that stress ages us and now you understand why! Constant stress shortens our telomeres. Practicing meditation and yoga has been proven to lengthen telomeres.5
Foods high in vitamins are believed to protect cells and their telomeres from oxidative damage. Blueberries, goji berries, dark chocolate, cilantro, and artichokes are some examples of high antioxidant foods. These foods are measured by their ORAC (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity) score. In essence, these foods are tested in a lab to quantify 'total antioxidant capacity.' The higher the ORAC score, the more effective that food is in its total antioxidant capacity.
Ultimately, knowing that you have an influence on your genes is empowering. You have control over your health and can take small action steps to improve the quality of your life and reduce your risk for long-term disease. Consuming more antioxidant rich foods, reducing stress and good old fashioned exercise is your fountain of youth!