Do Genes Affect Disease and Longevity?

By  //  February 15, 2020

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Do you have the same hair color as your mother or father? What about eye color? Do your siblings also have the same hair and eye color? Family resemblances are obvious signs of shared genes, but genes can also determine your health and longevity.

Do you have the same hair color as your mother or father? What about eye color? Do your siblings also have the same hair and eye color? Family resemblances are obvious signs of shared genes, but genes can also determine your health and longevity.

Genes 101

Before we do a deep dive into how genes can cause health problems and affect longevity, it’s essential to get a basic overview of what genes are in the first place. 

DNA strands make the chromosomes found in the nucleus of cells, and segments of DNA are genes. Each gene has a specific protein that builds, regulates, repairs, and maintains the body. Without these specific proteins, muscles and bones would not grow and the heart would not beat.

Almost all cells have chromosomes, and you have 46 in total. When sperm and egg unite during conception, a person inherits 23 chromosomes from the father’s sperm and 23 chromosomes from the mother’s egg. 

After conception, the chromosomes pair up, and the genes do, too. Paired genes, one from each parent, carry out the biological plans for the same body function. 

2 Ways Genetics Affect Disease

Genetics can cause an inherited disease because of a gene mutation. They can also create a predisposition for a person to become more vulnerable than others to a common disease.

1. Inherited Diseases 

Almost everyone gets two copies of each gene, inheriting each gene from each parent. However, instead of two copies, some people may have a missing gene, some people may have three or more genes, and some people may have inherited a defective gene copy from each parent. No gene, a missing gene, too many genes, or defective genes cause a wide variety of debilitating symptoms

In an inherited disease like Stromme syndrome for example, someone with the genetic disorder receives a defective CENPF gene from each parent.

Because the CENPF gene responsible for segregation during cellular division is not functioning, someone with this disease has abnormal craniofacial features, such as microcephaly (smaller than normal head size), micrognathia (an undersized jaw), low-set ears, a prominent nose, a cleft palate, and hypertelorism (abnormal distance between two organs, like the eyes).

2. Common Diseases 

Genes affect many serious common diseases like diabetes, asthma, or heart diseases. However, lifestyle choices also influence diseases.

Until now, scientists have not discovered all the genetic and non-genetic factors affecting health. Scientists also do not know how the few factors that they have discovered interact with each other. 

How Genetics Affects Longevity 

When you hear stories of super centenarians, people who live past the age of 100, many people attribute this good luck to winning the genetic lottery. However, doctors attribute longevity to a combination of genes and intelligent lifestyle choices. 

The Role of Lifestyle

Although genetics influence your health and how long you live, lifestyle factors play a large role, too. According to the World Health Organization, poor lifestyle choices cause about 60% of the most common diseases, such as eating an unhealthy diet, consistent drug abuse, heavy alcohol consumption, and high levels of stress.

Lifestyle plays a big role in longevity. Based on studies of twins, genetics accounts for only about 20% to 30% of your chances of living to age 85. 

Lifestyle has a minimal effect on inherited diseases, other than mitigating symptoms, but it has a strong, beneficial effect in lowering the risk of a genetic predisposition to a serious illness. 

In conclusion, although we can’t change our genes, we can control our behavior and make lifestyle choices to lower the risk of getting some common diseases that have affected other members of your family because of your family’s genetic makeup.

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