“The years sure have been kind to you!” I heard from an old friend from my high school days when I encountered him recently. “Nah, lifestyle has.” I replied. This exchange got me thinking: Is the passage of time “kinder” to some people and “meaner” to others? Does growing older harder on some people than others?
When it comes to a wide range of health issues, you hear things like, “It runs in my family.” The reality is that, except for truly genetically inherited diseases such as Huntington’s disease, the worst you can do is to inherit the genes for increased risk.
For example, the APOE gene has been getting a lot of publicity for its connection to Alzheimer’s disease. People who inherit one copy of the e4 variant of the APOE allele have an increased chance of developing the disease, and those who inherit two copies of the allele are at even greater risk. It is important to note, however, that people with the APOE e4 allele inherit an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s, not the disease itself. In other words, not all people with Alzheimer’s disease have the APOE e4 allele, and not all people who have this allele will develop the disease (NIH).
The flawed idea of genetic determinism can be, for some people, both frightening and paradoxically appealing on some level. It’s frightening because it creates the idea that a health outcome or a certain disease is inevitably coming your way. It’s appealing because it appears to remove the need to make choices.
Jim Fixx, Hero of the Unhealthy
When I was growing up, people would dismiss healthy behaviors by mentioning a famous runner named Jim Fixx (real name James Fuller), who authored the 1977 best-selling book, The Complete Book of Running. Fixx is credited with helping popularize the sport of running and demonstrating the health benefits of regular jogging. Sadly, he died of a heart attack while jogging at age 52. People who dismiss healthy living pointed to Fixx as proof that you could be an avid exerciser and you still might die young. But that’s not the whole story: Jim Fixx inherited a predisposition for heart problems. This means that, without an exercise lifestyle, he may have had that same heart attack at age 40 instead of age 52.
Between the Genes Matters More
When it comes to our choices, epigenetics—what is between the genes—likely matters more than our genes. The epigenetic