“It runs in my family” is an understanding, more so an excuse, that most people have when it comes to common family traits or inheritable diseases being passed down from generation to generation. But do we know what we carry? And does it matter?
Genes are a set of instructions that determine what you are, how you look and, at times, how you behave. It is a like a blueprint for you. Your genes are a combination of your parents’ genes and theirs come from their parents and so on. Hence, this chain forms the link for all the commonalities you see in a family tree.
Some genes also determine what eye colour we inherited. Say if your eye colour matches your mother's. Or if the way you speak is similar to your uncle. But there are also "bad" genes that get passed down to you from your family. These genes increase your risk of heritable diseases such as cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity or heart disease.
What can my genes tell me?
In the past two decades, the medical field has advanced to technologies that help you map out and analyse your entire genetic code, i.e. your genes.
Dr Eric Rimm, Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School, says, "If your father died of a heart attack before the age of 60 or 65, you're at two-and-a-half times greater risk of heart disease than someone who doesn't have that history."
Simply put, it takes only a swab from your mouth to determine whether you will develop cancer someday. And this could also tell whether you have the chance of passing a life-threatening disease to your child.
It does sound scary, and some may prefer not to find out what they carry in their genes. However, it is not all terrifying.
Len Lichtenfeld, MD, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, explains, "We're now in an era of rapidly changing science and the application of that science, not only to our health care but other aspects of our lives as well."
So how does one know what our genes carry?
The Bridge Chronicle explains the importance of understanding your genes. And how to care better for your future.
How much do my genes matter?
Unlike past belief, the medical community has found that genetic predisposition to diseases is not an endgame. What it means is: it is okay if your family has a history of ailments. You can still control whether you get affected or not.
This surfacing field of scientific research is known as epigenetics, and it deals with the interactions of our genes with the environment we live in, that is, our lifestyle.
This field begs the question, what matters more: my genes or my lifestyle? Though one cannot entirely disregard the role of genetics, researchers preach the possibility of a good lifestyle reversing the ill-effects of your genes.
For example, in an interview, cardiologist Donald Lloyd-Jones remarks, "...a healthy lifestyle trumps inherited risk." Sighting an example, he suggests how a lifestyle change can help. Adults over 65 years with coronary heart disease can lower the danger of heart attacks by a whopping 45 per cent, only by being cautious and eating healthy.
Moreover, researcher Yvonne M Coyle, M.D. Department of Internal Medicine, Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas, USA, published that:
"Due to the substantial effect of modifiable lifestyle factors on the most prevalent cancers, it has been estimated that 50 per cent of cancer is preventable."
Personalised & preventive healthcare
In a general setting, doctors prescribe medicine or treatment based on factors such as weight, sex, age and liver and kidney functioning. However, this does not account for family history. Family history helps determine how the patient will react to the medicine prescribed. (The reason behind a family doctor)
However, with the rise of personalised or precision medicine, there is scope for better healthcare. The custom method helps professionals examine your genetic makeup and provide you with tailored medication.
The National Institute of General Medical Science (NIGMS), from Maryland, USA, mentions that the long-term goal of personalised medicine is to treat each patient individually.
This process will eliminate the low efficiency of treatment or any side effects as well.
Nutrigenomics is another avenue gaining popularity. Through this method, dietitians examine your genes and suggest the best possible diet for you. This custom diet fosters a healthy life while also attempting to quieten the genes that expose you to certain diseases.
Nowadays, Genetic Counsellors work with your family to lay out the possible scenarios of what you may genetically pass down to your child.
To know yourself, you need to know your genes. Knowing what you carry in your genes has broad implications — this includes prevention against developing a disease to planning the future of your family, or just optimising your personal health.