The good news is your genes are not in the driver's seat when it comes to most medical conditions. You are. According to WebMD, "…for most people, a healthy lifestyle trumps inherited risk."
Heart disease and diabetes are two of the most common worries for people as they age. Although more than 100 genes may slightly increase the risk of heart disease, the biggest factors in reducing risks are maintaining a healthy weight and diet, exercising, and not smoking. Type 2 diabetes is also partly about genes, but mostly about losing weight and exercising. While reducing risks from these diseases by living healthy, blood pressure and cholesterol levels decrease. People over 65 who have been diagnosed with coronary artery disease can reduce their heart attack risk by 45 percent when maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Cancer is another large concern as one ages, and the causes of cancer range from a specific gene to unknown factors. Some types of cancers are linked to the genes you were born with, such as the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, that dramatically increase a woman's likelihood of developing breast and ovarian cancer. Several other cancers can be caused by inherited genes such as pancreatic, prostate, and male breast cancer. Despite a genetic component, diet accounts for 75 percent of prostate cancers.
A healthy lifestyle includes awareness of cancers that appear to run in families and seeking medical advice regarding tests that can reveal these cancers at an early, treatable stage, as well as prevention options one may consider after genetic testing reveals a cancer-causing gene.
Causes of cancer have been proven to be 5 percent genetic and 95 percent lifestyle and environmental factors. It is a fact that if you stop smoking (or never start) you will live longer no matter what genes you have.
Anti-cancer diets abound, and the top cancer-fighting foods include the following:
- Green leafy vegetables (spinach, kale, collard greens);
- Cruciferous vegetables (cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli);
- Berries (blueberries, strawberries, cherries);
- Orange vegetables and fruits (squash, carrots, citrus);
- Fresh herbs and spices (turmeric, garlic, basil, parsley);
- Organic meats including chicken livers.
Other cancer-fighting foods include cultured dairy products, mushrooms, nuts, seeds, wild-caught fish, unrefined oils, and teas. Foods that increase the risk of cancer include refined oils, sugar, farm-raised meats, refined carbohydrates, and conventional dairy products.
Between-meal snacks are pitfalls of healthy diets. The MD Anderson Cancer Center has compiled a list of four healthy snacks that people who are serious about reducing their risk of cancer – and other diet-related diseases --can easily keep on hand:
- One ounce low-fat cheese plus six whole grain crackers;
- Four ounces of nonfat Greek yogurt plus one cup of sliced fruit;
- Two tablespoons of hummus plus one-half cup of raw vegetables;
- One tablespoon of nut butter plus one medium apple.
- These snacks help fight off cancer because they refuel the body, stabilize sugar levels, and help to foster a healthy metabolism.
A study of "blue zones," places in the world where people live longer than the rest of the world, prove that their longevity has more to it than their genetic makeup. To qualify as a Blue Zone, these communities have to be largely free of heart disease, obesity, cancer, and diabetes. Their diet is mainly vegetarian; they eat meat rarely and in small portions. They enjoy one or two glasses of wine or other alcohol a day. And, their lifestyle requires a lot of physical activity.
If you don't live in a blue zone (the island of Ikaria, Greece; Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Loma Linda, California; Nicoya Peninsula, Costa Rica) there’s a lot that we can learn from their lifestyle.
Current research shows that genes account for 20 to 30 percent of a person's chance of living to age 85. A 2011 article in the Atlantic concluded their review of reliable studies with this encouraging news, "eating well will not only help you feel better in an immediate way, but it could actually alter your genes and reduce risk to your heart in a long-term way."