Genetics and Disease

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the role of genetics in health. It seems like every day the media have a new story about gene X or Y 'causing' obesity, diabetes or heart disease. There are some diseases that are strongly and clearly linked to a gene, such as the disease I study: spinocerebellar ataxia type 7. I do not believe that genetics are the cause of more than a slim minority of health problems however. Part of this is a semantic issue. How do you define the word 'cause'? It's a difficult question, but I'll give you an example of my reasoning and then we'll come back to it.

A classic and thoroughly studied example of genetic factors in disease can be found in the Pima indians of Arizona. Currently, this population eats a version of the American diet, high in refined and processed foods. It also has the highest prevalence of type II diabetes of any population on earth (much higher than the US average), and a very high rate of obesity. One viewpoint is that these people are genetically susceptible to obesity and diabetes, and thus their genes are the cause of their health problems.

However, if you walk across the national border to Mexico, you'll find another group of Pima indians. This population is genetically very similar to the Arizona Pima except they have low rates of obesity and diabetes. They eat a healthier, whole-foods, agriculture-based diet. Furthermore, 200 years ago, the Arizona Pima were healthy as well. So what's the cause of disease here? Strictly speaking, it's both genetics and lifestyle. Both of these factors are necessary for the health problems of the Arizona Pima. However, I think it's more helpful to think of lifestyle as the cause of disease, since that's the factor that changed.

The Pima are a useful analogy for the world in general. They are an extreme example of what has happened to many if not all modern societies. Thus, when we talk about the 'obesity gene' or the 'heart disease gene', it's misleading. It's only the 'obesity gene' in the context of a lifestyle to which we are not genetically adapted.

I do not believe that over half of paleolithic humans were overweight, or that 20% had serious blood glucose imbalances. In fact, studies of remaining populations living naturally and traditionally have shown that they are typically much healthier than industrialized humans. Yet here we are in the US, carrying the very same genes as our ancestors, sick as dogs. That's not all though: we're actually getting sicker. Obesity, diabetes, allergies and many other problems are on the rise, despite the fact that our genes haven't changed.

I conclude that genetics are only rarely the cause of disease, and that the vast majority of health problems in the US are lifestyle-related. Studies into the genetic factors that predispose us to common health problems are interesting, but they're a distraction from the real problems and the real solutions that are staring us in the face. These solutions are to promote a healthy diet, exercise, and effective stress management.


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