Genetic testing is big business. More than 26 million people have taken an at-home ancestry test, according to a report issued by MIT Technology Review in early 2019. In fact, the industry seems to be accelerating – as many people purchased an ancestry test in 2018 as in all other years combined.
But ancestry tests are just the tip of the iceberg. Over 500 laboratories offer genetic testing, and current technology allows us to test for over 2,000 health conditions ranging from common to rare. Some of the types of genetic testing now on offer include:
- Diagnostic Testing: this involves checking for conditions that could cause a person to get sick in the future so they can figure out in advance how best to treat and/or manage these conditions.
- Pre-Symptomatic and Predictive Testing: these tests identify genetic variations that increase a person’s risk of developing certain diseases so they can make lifestyle changes that could potentially decrease that risk.
- Carrier Testing: this tells people if they carry a genetic variation that can be passed onto their children, causing them to develop the disease or become carriers themselves.
While some people find the advances in genetic technology frightening because they worry about the implications of so much personal data floating around, I couldn’t be more thrilled by this progress. Why do I find genetic testing so exciting? Because it arms you with knowledge that, when used correctly, may alter the course of your life—in a good way.
Once you learn about your genetic makeup, you can make all sorts of powerful and personalized lifestyle choices, and you can even design a nutrition and fitness program for your genes. Let’s take a closer look at how this works.
Affecting Your Genes With Epigenetics
You may be genetically predisposed to certain conditions, but that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to develop them. Far from being at the mercy of your genes, you can affect which ones are turned on and off through lifestyle choices like diet, exercise, and stress management. The rapidly advancing field of epigenetics, the study of how chemical and environmental factors impact our genetic health, has revealed many ways in which we can influence our genes.
Change Your Diet, Change Your Genes
Making dietary changes can have a profound impact on your genetic health. One study found people who ate more fruits and vegetables were less likely to develop cardiovascular disease even if they carried copies of the gene that increases risk of heart problems, effectively “turning off” the gene.
More recently, scientists were able to identify an epigenetic marker and two genes that caused heart failure in the children and grandchildren of fruit flies experiencing heart dysfunction caused by a high fat diet. Remarkably, they found that reversing the epigenetic modification or over-expressing the responsible genes protected subsequent generations from the negative heart effects of the high-fat diet consumed by their parents.
Exercise Your Way to Better Genes
Altering your diet isn’t the only lifestyle change that can positively affect your genes. Exercise also appears to change the shape of our genes, as well as the way they function. In one study, researchers found that exercising led to significant changes in the DNA of subjects’ muscle cells.
The takeaway from this study? Your workout program can positively impact not just your physical fitness but your overall genetic health. As the study’s leader, Malene Lindholm, told the New York Times, “Through endurance training—a lifestyle change that is easily available for most people and doesn’t cost much money—we can induce changes that affect how we use our genes and, through that, get healthier and more functional muscles that ultimately improve our quality of life.”
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Myles Spar, MD, MPH is board certified in Internal Medicine and in Integrative Medicine. As a clinician, teacher and researcher on faculty of two major medical centers, he has led the charge for a more proactive, holistic and personalized approach to care that focuses on cutting edge technology and preventative care. Dr. Spar has been a consultant with the NBA, presented a TEDx Talk, appeared on national television, and been featured in publications such as the Men’s Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He was most recently National Medical Director and Chief Medical Officer of a national medical practice, but is available to consult with individual patients interested in a personalized approach to optimal performance and health.