Just think -- your lifestyle choices could have such a big impact not only on your own health, but also on that of your children and grandchildren. In “Genes Aren’t Destiny,” John Cloud described the emerging field of epigenetics for the January 18, 2010 issue of Time magazine.
“At its most basic, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that do not involve alternations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation,” Cloud said. “It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like diet, stress and prenatal nutrition can make an imprint on genes that is passed from one generation to the next.” These types of changes don’t result in changes to one’s DNA, but instead are biological responses to an environmental stressor.
So why are the findings of this field of study relevant to diet and exercise? Let’s look at a study of the effects of feast and famine years during the 1800s on children who grew up in Norrbotten during that time. Dr. Lars Olov Bygren hypothesized whether parents’ experiences during their own early years could change the traits they passed to their own children and grandchildren. His research as well as that of others suggests that environmental conditions can leave a genetic imprint in eggs and sperm that can short-circuit evolution, causing new traits to emerge in a generation.
Dr. Bygren found that boys who partook in eating due to an overabundant harvest in Overkalix, Sweden had sons and grandsons who lived shorter lives. In one published paper, Dr. Bygren calculated that “the grandsons of Overkalix (Parish) boys who had overeaten died an average of six year earlier than the grandsons of those who had endured a poor harvest,” Cloud wrote. “Once Bygren and his team controlled for certain socioeconomic variations, the difference in longevity jumped to an astonishing 32 years. Later papers using different Norrbotten (County) cohorts also found significant drops in life span and discovered that they applied along the female line as well, meaning that the daughters and granddaughters of girls who had gone from normal to gluttonous diets also lived shorter lives. To put it simply, the data suggested that a single winter of overeating as a youngster could initiate a biological chain of events that would lead one’s grandchildren to die decades earlier than their peers did.”
So what can you do to try to avoid implications from epigenetic changes? I’d suggest learning from the research conducted on the Blue Zones. I wrote about this research for the HealthCentral.com’s Alzheimer’s site. The study conducted by National Geographic freelance writer Dan Buettner focused on finding the places in the world where the greatest number of people who are 100 years old live and what their lifestyles are. These locations are known as Blue Zones. The interview with Dan Buettner (which was featured on an Oprah Show) identified four Blue Zones – Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; and Okinawa Japan. People in these areas made similar lifestyle choices, including eating a healthy diet, exercising, and maintaining and a sense of community and purpose. Some of the practices from these blue zones included: eating food that is locally grown; eating a big breakfast to start the day and then smaller meals; eating a plant-based diet with meat as a side course; eat a vegan diet; doing exercises to build your quadriceps in order to prevent falling; changing to goat’s milk, which may prevent heart disease and Alzheimer’s; and eating natural foods.
Starting a healthy lifestyle as early as possible can make a difference not only for you, but your children and grandchildren. That’s a good reason to embrace a quality diet and an exercise regime.
Published On: May 26, 2010