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Friends and Family Friday: Genetics Are Not Destiny

Posted Nov 05 2010 7:46am
Today on the American Diabetes Association's "Stop Diabetes" challenge is "friends and family day." The organization asked the question, "Who in your family or circle of friends has diabetes?"

My friend JJ's family has a strong history of diabetes on her dad's side. It's as if every male family member is diagnosed with diabetes around age 65 and dies of instant heart attack by age 70 or so. It's so prevalent that she's worried sick for her 17 year old son. Did he inherit the "bad genes"? Will he die young (hey, 70 is young!) too?

One thing I keep telling her is my firm belief - genetics are NOT destiny. Yes, we are all dealt a genetic hand of cards at birth over which we have no control. Mom and Dad each contributed to our genetic makeup; but keep in mind, there are literally million of potential combinations along the entire chromosome spectrum that make us who we are.

So for my friend JJ, I keep reminding her that her dad's family always married within their same ethnic group and even chose partners from a close radius of about 100 miles within their European town; JJ is American, her parents are immigrants, and like most Americans she married a man with a very different genetic background.

The bottom line is that science doesn't know enough yet about how genes are activated to know whether or not diabetes is always a genetic factor, genetics plus environment, or genetics + environment + lifestyle. We just don't know. We know that diabetes does seem to run in families, but so does high blood pressure, certain cancers, and other diseases. Which genes control the expression of disease and whether or not lifestyle factors (and which ones) come into play is still under research and discussion among doctors.

What we DO know is that certain lifestyle factors can possibly prevent or control diabetes. Eating a healthy diet, and especially exercise, can help whether you are prediabetic or diabetic. More importantly, maintaining a healthy weight and losing weight if your BMI is in the obese or overweight category helps. The American Diabetes Association has more information on their website, and your doctor can advise you too if you're worried or concerned.

Can JJ predict her son's diabetes? No. But with a bit of lifestyle modification, she may be able to help him maintain a healthy lifestyle for the long run.

What do you think?
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