Standing outside of Wrigley Field on a gorgeous Chicago summer day 10 years ago, I got a phone call from my mother that would rock our family’s world: She had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). The news was devastating, foreshadowing a decade of MRIs and chemotherapeutic drugs (along with awe-inspiring courage and resolve on Mom’s part). But with her diagnosis, a sickening, nagging worry took up residence in the back of my mind: Will I get it, too? “Most people equate family history and genetics with their personal health destiny,” says Andrew Weil, M.D., founder and director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona Health Sciences Center. But before you ask your parents’ doctor for a “buy one, get one free” deal, consider this: “Research shows that dietary and lifestyle measures have an almost threefold greater impact on long-term health and the way we age than our genes,” notes Weil. In fact, most studies suggest 30 percent to 40 percent of our health is genetically determined, leaving a substantial 60 percent to 70 percent in our hands—risk that can be modified by what we put in our mouths, how we move our bodies and how we handle stress. As New York City naturopathic physician Brooke Kalanick, N.D., puts it, “Genetics are the gun, but your lifestyle pulls the trigger.”
Nature versus nurture
That trigger may be even more sensitive than previously thought. Revolutionary research by Dean Ornish, M.D., found that three months of a low-fat, whole foods and plant-based diet, moderate aerobic exercise and six days per week of hourlong meditation, gentle yoga or other stress management practices actually strengthened chromosomal caps called telomeres. (Long, strong telomeres correlate with a long, healthy life.) And researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital found that eight weeks of dedicated stress reduction produced healthpromoting changes in gene expression. Such results don’t shock Brent Bauer, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Department of Internal Medicine’s Complementary and Integrative Medicine Program. Bauer believes a commitment to the four pillars of health—diet, exercise, stress management and spirituality—can prevent 90 percent of the health care problems in the U.S. The emerging field of epigenetics suggests a happy trickle-down effect. “Those same lifestyle choices may help silence ‘bad’ genes while supporting the activity of ‘good’ genes,” says Weil. “And that’s a health benefit that can be passed on to children and grandchildren.” In other words, your apple a day just might keep your future offspring’s oncologist and cardiologist away. Still worried about succumbing to a parent’s medical fate? Read on to learn your real risk and amass an arsenal of tools for fighting fate and staying well.
Myrna Aguilar, 35, knew heart disease ran in her family: Her father was diagnosed with hypertension and high cholesterol in his early 30s and passed away at 54. Her mother also struggled with high blood pressure and cholesterol in her early 40s. But it wasn’t until Aguilar’s 2009 annual checkup, when her physician voiced concern about her 20-pound weight gain, that she realized she could be next in line. “I was neglecting myself, not eating well and plopping on the couch after dinner,” recalls the single mom from South Gate, Calif. Considering her family history, these habits were especially harmful—but any woman whose diet and exercise routine could use some revamping should take note: Heart disease is the leading killer of women, responsible for 1 in every 6 deaths. Having a mother who developed heart disease before 65 (or a father before 50) ups your odds by 25 percent to 50 percent. The good news is that lifestyle can trump genetics. According to the American Heart Association, better diet and exercise habits and avoiding tobacco can prevent 80 percent of cardiac events in women. With that knowledge, Aguilar adopted a variety of prevention strategies to stave off the family disease, such as snacking on baby carrots at work instead of salty chips and taking evening walks or bike rides with her mom, now 67, and her 6-year-old son. Aguilar has a leg up in that she never smoked—female smokers are two to six times more likely to suffer a heart attack than nonsmokers. But if she did smoke, quitting would have slashed her risk by 50 percent within a year. The results: Aguilar has lost 16 pounds and counting.