Do your genetics pre-determine how you will age, what diseases you will have, and what health issues you will deal with later in life? Or are there other factors at play? Genetics definitely play a role in how we age but lifestyle and environment may play a bigger role. It is estimated that only 25 percent of the variation in human life span is determined by genetics1.
Scientists have been studying nonagenarians (people in their 90’s) and centenarians (people living in their 100’s) for a long time. What they have found is that these people do not have very much that is similar in regards to education, income or profession but rather they are similar in their in their lifestyles. These wise individuals are mostly non-smokers, are not obese and have low levels of stress or deal with stress well1. This makes them less likely to develop chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, heart disease, and cancer.
Are their genes playing a role?
There are a few identified genes that are implicated in longevity such as IGF1R, PON1, APOC3 and PI3K3. These genes have been implicated in aging because of their basic maintainence and function of cells1…
- DNA repair
- Maintenance of the ends of chromosomes (telomeres)
- protection of cells from damage caused by unstable oxygen-containing molecules (free radicals)
However, not all nonagenarians or centenarians have these genes suggesting lifestyle is a stronger determinant of health and life span than genetics.
What causes aging?
When I think about the cause of aging I tend to think about cellular health. Things that decrease cellular health like gut dysbiosis, toxin overload, covert infections (immune dysregulation) and lifestyle factors like excess stress, poor diet, lack of movement, and poor sleep are contributors to faster aging. These aforementioned contributors to decreased cellular health are acting negatively on mitochondrial functioning, which is the driving force for life.
Is this all genetic? Do these genes or lack of determine our future?
I tend to think not….
Take for example the APOE4 gene. The APOE4 gene and the carriers of two alleles of this gene are more likely to develop Alzheimers disease. But, only about 2-5% of alzheimers patients actually carry the gene identified for the development of alzheimers2 leaving 95% of alzheimers cases to a non-genetic cause! This further makes the case for other factors contributing to the aging process…
Hormesis and longevity
Hormesis is an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stress. So wait, stress is good? Yes, but in small, short bursts. Hormetic stressors such as exercise, fasting, and cold exposure promote enzymes such as kinases and deacetylases, and transcription factors such as Nrf-2 and NF-κB that promote mitochondrial functioning and autophagy (programmed cell death).
Cold exposure: this does not have to be an ice bath and I don’t recommend starting out in the ice. Temperatures as low as 60 degrees can achieve these effects.
Fasting: fasting is a really good way to promote autophagy. I do not recommend jumping right into a prolonged fast, however. Fasting is also a way to promote detoxification so if the body is not ready to deal with a high level of detox this can make someone feel worse.
Exercise: exercise is a stressor on the body but done in short, intense bursts this gives the body those mitochondrial benefits we are looking for! Exercise should not cause prolonged fatigue or soreness following, so if this is something you experience I would advise to not push exercise.
What about prolonged stress?
Excessive, prolonged stress actually does the exact opposite of positive hormetic effects seen with intermittent stress. This is an important point because in our society today we are constantly under prolonged stress from our fast paced lifestyles and increasing pressure “to do it all.” This puts us into fight or flight nearly all the time blunting are ability to rest, digest and repair. A key to longevity in addition to exercise, diet, fasting, etc is stress management on a consistent basis.
Some of my favorite ways to manage stress and get myself into rest and digest are:
-vagal nerve exercises such as cold exposure, gargling, diaphragmatic breathing, singing/humming and having fun! – see my article on the vagus nerve to learn more
So do our genes determine the fate of our health?
I hope this article has given you the hope and the idea that epigenetic factors (diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, environmental exposures) are the bigger driving force to the development of chronic disease and symptoms. I also hope you find this information powerful and as a way to take control of your own health! Functional medicine is a medical model that looks at epigenetic factors as playing a role in health, identifies triggers to chronic disease development and develops a personalized, effective, do-able plan to set the patient on a path to optimal longevity.
If you or someone you know is dealing with a chronic condition or symptoms they just can’t seem to figure out schedule a FREE consult today 🙂
3. Rodríguez-Rodero S, Fernández-Morera JL, Menéndez-Torre E, Calvanese V, Fernández AF, Fraga MF. Aging genetics and aging. Aging Dis. 2011 Jun;2(3):186-95. Epub 2011 Apr 28. PMID: 22396873; PMCID: PMC3295054.R