It’s no secret that diet and exercise can have a direct impact on our health. But for many people, the genetic predisposition to disease – whether it’s hypertension, diabetes or cancer – is often seen as a risk they don’t see. However, new findings in the field of epigenetics suggest that we may have more control than previously thought when it comes to preventing the onset of sporadic or even inherited diseases. Our daily routine, from what we eat for breakfast to how far we walk to work, could determine whether or not our genetic sequences activate or prevent the development of cancer in our body.
Researchers at the Boston University School of Medicine put forward an exciting theory earlier this year that, if proven correct, may identify preventable or stoppable causes of carcinogenesis. They proposed the existence of processes within our cells that activate specific DNA sequences that function as epigenetic on/off switches for cancer.
Cancer is the second most common disease in the United States, and scientists have yet to find a means of prevention and cure applicable to all of the many varieties of the disease. Yet with this new discovery, we may be closer than ever to understanding where cancer begins — and even where it might end.
The “on/off switch” hypothesis stems from a basic understanding of epigenetics – a field that has been evolving for over 20 years. This genetic science studies the expression or suppression of genes that we inherit at birth. The field seeks to explain changes in the way our genes express themselves as a direct result of our behavior and diet, as well as our exposure to environmental factors.
Geneticists and oncologists have long recognized that certain environmental agitators, like certain chemicals and radiation, cause DNA damage and can affect how our genes are expressed – this is how smoking cigarettes or asbestos exposure can cause cancer. At the same time, most people have only a general acceptance that we determine, to some extent, the state of our own health.
Many of my patients do not connect this understanding with their risk, or that of their children, of potentially increasing their chances of developing a disease. But that’s what it’s all about when we consider that our lifestyles can have an independent impact on gene expression. These changes that have been incorporated into our DNA can also be passed on to future generations.
Inactivity leading to weight gain and obesity, for example, is a lifestyle choice that many people perceive as only indirectly leading to health problems – and a habit that can only afflict their children. by habit.
A Journal of the National Cancer Institute A study published in June compiled the results of dozens of surveys and found that a sedentary lifestyle significantly increases the risk of developing certain cancers. Study subjects who spent the most time sitting during the day were 24% more likely to get colon cancer than those who spent the least amount of time sitting in a chair. Those who watched the most television had a 54% increased risk compared to those who watched the least. The effects on uterine cancer were even greater for those who were the most inactive, with an increased risk of 32% for women who sat often and 66% for those who watched the most television.
Another recent study from the Aston University School of Medical Sciences in Birmingham, England, reported that high cholesterol levels were associated with an increased risk of developing breast cancer in a woman. Women with high cholesterol levels assessed by the researchers were 64% more likely to develop the disease. This may be due to hormonal factors or epigenetic changes associated with persistently elevated cholesterol.
Epigenetic discoveries like these offer clues to how our lifestyles actually influence processes within our cells that tell problematic genes to turn on and start causing problems and helpful genes to turn off. and stop solving problems. Perhaps equally important is research suggesting that epigenetic traits induced by our diets and lifestyles can in fact become hereditary.
If some of our habits are capable of causing changes that become embedded in our DNA and express themselves in successive generations (our children’s children), then negative health trends like obesity are even more concerning. . But this understanding gives us the ability to manage our health responsibly to mitigate illnesses we previously thought were inevitable.
So what does all of this mean for us? Thanks to the constant reminders, we know how important our daily lifestyle habits are: eating healthy, exercising, not smoking. But epigenetics ups the ante. This means that the decisions we make about how much TV we watch or what we eat can actually impact whether or not we change our DNA. That means doctors like me who specialize in cancer care need to focus even more on encouraging people to live healthier lives, so they can potentially avoid diagnosis in the first place.
We cannot rely on advanced treatments and new biotechnologies to overcome the personal value of making smart choices about how we live our lives.