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Genes vs. Environment vs. Hygiene Habits

Posted Feb 07 2011 1:26pm

Brushing my teeth this morning, I heard this NPR story on colds . The story’s reporter was posing the question: why do some people catch everything that’s going around and other people can go the whole year unscathed? Especially when these people may live in the same home. The story interviewed medical experts who collectively postulated that science has arrived at place where 3 factors are identified as determining who might get sick and who skates through unharmed: genes, exposure to germ/viruses,  and immune system strength. Sounds pretty logical.

Some people’s genetic makeup make have endowed them with an immune function that’s just really high-performing, or low-performing. Others may have an immune system that has been well trained over the years by that person having been exposed to a number of pathogens that their immune responders “remember” and can quickly confront during exposure. It’s a form of the “hygiene hypothesis” in action. Or, some people just do a better job of protecting themselves by being vigilant in hand washing, good nutrition, sleep habits, etc.

But don’t get hung up on genes, especially if you’re blaming your body’s genome for your constant bad luck in always getting sick. As Dr. Pamela Peek , a national science and health authority, recently stated at a conference I attended, genetics comprise 30% of someone’s life/health experience. Environment and life choices make up 70%. “Genetics may be the gun, but environment pulls the trigger,” she said.

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