The link between genes and health is complex, but with over 20,000 genes in every chromosome in each cell in the human body, their importance clearly can’t be ignored. If one or both parents have a condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure, you have a higher likelihood of developing it yourself. Luckily, you are not bound to your biology, as discussed in a recent AARP article, “How to Defy Your Genes,” (June/July 2016).


As the AARP article pointed out, lifestyle is the key to delay or completely avoid family illnesses. Take type 2 diabetes, for instance: If one parent has it, your risk for developing diabetes is one in seven; if both parents have it, you have a one in two chance. The good news is that you can improve your odds of staving off the disease by losing any extra weight, being as active as possible, and eating a healthy diet that includes plenty of fruits and vegetables, while avoiding sugar and fried foods. Experts also recommend cultivating strong social connections as well as practicing mindfulness and stress-reducing techniques. The same approach can be applied to other conditions, like high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Medications may end up being necessary to control these conditions as you age, but it’s preferable to begin taking them later in life rather than sooner if you can help it—or avoid the need for them altogether. The goal is to do what you can to raise your chances of living as long and healthfully as possible.


You may have genes that raise your risk of developing hereditary conditions, but you might also have genes that effectively cancel out some of the undesirable ones. Time recently reported on a Scripps Translational Science Institute study that investigated which genes might be responsible for allowing some people to stay healthy and disease-free while living well into their 80s, 90s and even 100s (“These are the Genes Behind Healthy Aging,” April 2016). 


Researchers studied people older than 80 who had no chronic diseases and weren’t taking any medications for chronic illnesses, nicknaming them “Wellderly.” Surprisingly, genes that are usually associated with longevity weren’t what distinguished study participants. Instead, genes related to cognitive function appeared to be responsible for a long life without disease. The Wellderly were less likely to have a gene that is linked to higher Alzheimer’s risk, and more likely to have a rare gene variant that secretes proteins in the brain that perform a protective role.


Unless you’ve had your genome sequenced and your DNA analyzed, there’s no way to know if you have the protective genes right along with the genes for disease you’ve inherited from your parents. So your best bet is to get regular checkups, exercise and eat a healthy diet.