Some genetic traits are easier to defy than others, like your mom’s mousy hair and petite stature. (Bring on the highlights and heels!) Others, such as cancer or diabetes, are not so simple to escape. But now you can reduce your risk with proven tips for protecting your health from head to toe. Where to start:
You’re young, energetic, active — ticker trouble is probably the least of your worries. But heart disease is ageless, and up to 80 percent of heart attacks in women younger than 45 are due to genetics, says Donna Arnett, Ph.D., chair of epidemiology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Scientists have pinpointed a gene variant linked to a 30 percent to 40 percent higher risk for heart disease in women under age 60, reports Science. That’s considered early onset, though the disease itself starts to take hold long before. “Sometime in the next decade, we hope to develop screening tests for this and other gene variants. If you had one, you could make lifestyle changes to help prevent heart disease before warning signs appear,” Arnett says.
Override your DNA: If you want to lower your risk for heart disease, the same rules always apply: Maintain a healthy weight and keep your cholesterol and blood pressure levels low, Arnett says. Some numbers to know: Your body-mass index, or height-to-weight ratio, should be between 18.5 and 24.9 (calculate your BMI at Self.com); and shoot for a waist circumference of less than 35 inches. When it comes to cholesterol, your LDL, “bad,” cholesterol should be less than 100; your HDL, “good,” cholesterol above 50; and your triglycerides below 150. Finally, a healthy blood pressure measurement falls below 120/80. If one or more of your numbers is off, talk to your M.D. about getting them where they need to be, whether through diet, exercise or medication. And bring up any family history of heart disease, a major risk factor.
Some day, younger women might be able to find out how long they can wait before trying to get pregnant. Researchers at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas have discovered nearly 350 genes related to fertility, which may hold the key to causes of early infertility. “We hope to narrow down the genes with the greatest impact on fertility and test women to find out who carries defective versions; those who do can consider having children earlier,” says study author Diego Castrillon, M.D.
Override your DNA: If any woman in your family has gone through menopause before age 40, or if you have erratic periods, ask your ob/gyn for a blood workup that includes a follicle-stimulating-hormone test; high FSH levels may indicate your ovaries aren’t functioning normally. Any woman can enhance her fertility by not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption and practicing safer sex. (STDs like chlamydia can damage reproductive organs.) And if you’ve been trying to get pregnant for a year (six months if you’re older than age 35), ask for a referral to a fertility specialist: About 65 percent of women who seek medical assistance give birth successfully.
Fair, olive, dark — whatever complexion you got from your folks, it may have come with a risk for melanoma, the deadliest kind of skin cancer. People who inherit one or more variant forms of the MC1R gene are 6 to 13 times more likely to develop the disease, found a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. And 68 percent of patients with basal cell carcinoma, the most prevalent form of skin cancer, have a single gene mutation in common, report scientists at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.
Override your DNA: Genes play a role in 40 percent of melanomas, which means the majority of cases are preventable. Limit sun exposure and always wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even in winter. Also, see your derm once a year and do monthly self-exams. Vigilant habits helped 69 percent of people discover melanomas in earlier, more treatable stages in a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
The next time you blank on a co-worker’s name, tell her it’s your folks’ fault. “There are certain genes that play a crucial role in cognition and learning,” says Zaldy S. Tan, M.D., director of education at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Division of Aging in Boston. But even if you have the memory of an elephant, you may be carrying one or two copies of the apoE-e4 gene variant, which increases the risk of developing Alzheimer’s later in life. There is a test for the apoE-e4 variation, but many cases of the disease are found in people who don’t have it, so screening won’t tell you much.
Override your DNA: The best way to maintain a sharp mind is to keep both your brain and body busy. “Exercise helps prevent plaque buildup in your brain that has been linked to Alzheimer’s, while mental stimulation keeps neurons firing away,” Dr. Tan says. One activity that gets you moving and thinking: dancing, which was linked to a 76 percent reduced risk for dementia, finds research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in Bronx, New York. Samba, anyone?
One more reason to hate that skinny celeb who claims she never diets? She might not be fibbing after all. Instead, the lucky slim one may have been spared the FTO gene variant: Those who had two copies of it weighed 7 pounds more on average than those who didn’t, according to a study in Obesity Reviews. “One theory is that the FTO variant causes you to eat more or store more calories as fat,” says Louis Aronne, M.D., director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.
Override your DNA: Blame genes for your extra pounds all you want — it won’t help you lose them. One tack that might: Act more Amish. A study in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that Amish people with the FTO variant who got three to four hours of daily activity such as brisk walking or gardening were less likely to be overweight. “Genes haven’t changed in the past 30 years, but obesity rates have skyrocketed,” Dr. Aronne says. “Clearly, it’s much more than genetics.”
Experts have long known that heredity plays a role in respiratory conditions like asthma and allergies, and they’ve added lung cancer to that list. True, smoking is linked to 87 percent of lung cancer deaths, but that leaves 13 percent of victims who are nonsmokers. What’s more, “many smokers don’t get lung cancer, which suggests a genetic difference in those who do,” says Ming You, M.D., director of the Chemoprevention Program at the Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University in St. Louis. He has found a more than five times higher risk for lung cancer among puffers and nonsmokers alike who have both a family history of the disease and a specific cluster of genetic variations.
Override your DNA: The best way to prevent lung cancer is to kick the habit and avoid secondhand smoke: Nonsmokers have a 20 percent to 30 percent greater chance of developing the disease if they’re exposed to smoke at home or work, according to a Surgeon General’s report. And test your home for radon, an odorless gas released from rocks and soil that’s linked to up to 14 percent of all lung cancer deaths each year. For info on ordering an at-home test, call the National Safety Council’s radon hotline at 800-767-7236.
Those hours spent eyeballing friendship bracelet threads as a kid may partially explain your fuzzy vision today, but genes also play a role in whether we’ll eventually need glasses. And DNA is now being linked to macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness. In a Lancet study, the condition was connected with five variants of the SERPING1 gene, which work to regulate proteins that help clear eyes of damaging foreign material.
Override your DNA: Carrots will get you only so far in saving your sight. A better bet: Snack on those beta-carotene-rich veggies plus foods high in zinc (found in lean beef and cashews), vitamin C (from citrus fruit and broccoli) and vitamin E (nuts and vegetable oils contain this nutrient). These four antioxidants have been shown to protect against eye-tissue damage caused by UV rays, a prime player in macular degeneration, according to Robert Cykiert, M.D., clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City. And always wear sunglasses outdoors to fend off eye damage in the first place.
Your stress levels
Stress doesn’t appear to run in families, but how we react to it does: People who inherit certain variations of the NPY gene produce lower levels of an anxiety-easing molecule in response to stress, findings in Nature suggest. “Unchecked chronic stress activates genes that increase inflammation, which is linked to disease and aging,” explains Herbert Benson, M.D., associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston.
Override your DNA: Doing the things you enjoy that help you unwind, such as meditating and practicing yoga, prevents cell-damaging gene expressions from occurring, according to Dr. Benson’s research. Those who benefited in his study averaged about 20 minutes of relaxation a day. Any stress-relieving technique is fine, as long as it elicits your relaxation response, a physical state of rest that lowers heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.
The so-called breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2 get so much media play, it’s easy to feel as if they’re always responsible for bringing on the disease. And now comes unnerving news of the FGFR2 gene variant, which was shown to increase breast cancer risk by 20 percent to 60 percent in a study from the University of Cambridge in England. But it’s estimated that only about 5 percent to 10 percent of cases are due to inherited susceptibility, so don’t panic over the headlines. “Risk calculations will rapidly change over the next few years as we discover more variants,” says David Hunter, M.D., Vincent L. Gregory professor of cancer prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.
Override your DNA: Because most breast cancer cases don’t have a clear genetic element, every woman should take steps now to keep her breasts healthy for life. One key habit: Watch your weight. Women who gain 22 to 44 pounds between ages 35 and 50 have a 41 percent higher risk for breast cancer, finds a study from the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland.
Your mood swings
Does fighting with your guy make you feel more melancholy than miffed? You may have a short version of the 5-HTTLPR gene, suggests research by Redford Williams, M.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Those of us who do are more likely to feel depressed when we’re on edge, which makes sense evolutionarily: “If you feel sad during a conflict, you’re more likely to be nonconfrontational to ensure survival,” Dr. Williams says.
Override your DNA: It’s best to seek help for the blues whenever possible because the emotion is associated with heart disease, impaired immunity and more. And it’s just as dicey to resort to anger, which comes with the same health concerns as depression. To cope better in the moment, Dr. Williams recommends asking yourself the following: Is my response appropriate? Is my situation modifiable? Is taking action worth it? Answering these questions will help you put a problem in perspective and instill a sense of calm. “Say, you’re driving and someone is riding your bumper. Is it worth it to tap your brakes?” Dr. Williams asks. “Sure, you might get him to slow down, but you also might cause an accident. But in a situation that makes you question your self-worth — for instance, your boyfriend calling you stupid because of your movie choice — it’s worth speaking up and defending yourself.” And then go see that chick flick anyway.
Your sleep habits
Early birds, night owls and insomniacs, unite: You all can look to your DNA to help explain your slumber patterns. People with insomnia are three times more likely than nonsufferers to have a first-degree relative with the condition, the Journal of Psychosomatic Research reports. And less than 1 percent of the population has familial advanced sleep phase syndrome (FASPS), a condition characterized by super early rising and bedtime in part due to a mutation in the Per2 gene, research at the University of California at San Francisco suggests. “The Per2 mutation alters circadian rhythm, throwing off your internal clock so you fall asleep at 8 p.m. and are up at 4 a.m.,” says study author Louis Ptáček, M.D.
Override your DNA: Love your late nights or up-at-dawn days? You may have adjusted your life to suit your sleep patterns. “People with FASPS may even self-select into careers, like surgeons or Wall Street traders, where they have to be at work at 7 a.m.,” says Michael Thorpy, M.D., director of the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, New York. But if your sleep schedule disrupts your life, you can reset your circadian rhythm. See a sleep specialist, who may advise using a light box in the early evening to push back your bedtime (light suppresses the production of melatonin, a sleep-bringing hormone) or in the morning to help you wake up.
Your blood sugar
A killer sweet tooth isn’t always behind type 2 diabetes. Researchers have implicated 17 gene variants that each raise the risk for the disease by anywhere from 10 percent to 30 percent, explains David Altshuler, M.D., professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School. The most common culprit: a certain version of a gene called TCF7L2, which makes carriers up to 80 percent more susceptible. But although commercial tests for the gene variant are available, Dr. Altshuler advises against them: “You can learn more about your risk by stepping on a scale and by finding out your family history.”
Override your DNA: You can dramatically reduce your odds of developing type 2 diabetes by eating a lowfat diet and exercising regularly to lose excess pounds, findings from the landmark Diabetes Prevention Program suggest. The study demonstrated that people at high risk for diabetes who exercised for at least 150 minutes per week and reduced their fat intake from 34.1 percent to 27.5 percent of their diet slashed their risk for the disease by 58 percent.
Yup, your digestive issues may be another hand-me-down. Half of people with irritable bowel syndrome, a condition characterized by abdominal discomfort and frequent diarrhea or constipation, can point to another family member who also has it, according to a study from the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “We suspect ultimately 10 to 15 genes are involved in IBS,” says study author Yuri Saito, M.D.
Override your DNA: You may not feel like bringing up your bathroom habits at the next family reunion, but there’s no clear diagnostic test for IBS; it’s really based on patient history and symptoms. “Stress and other psychological factors affect IBS, which can lead to a vicious cycle: Having stomach issues stresses you out more, which in turn worsens IBS,” Dr. Saito says. One promising treatment approach: cognitive-behavioral therapy. Sixty to 70 percent of IBS patients who had four sessions of CBT reported improvement in symptoms compared with those who got none. Get help finding a therapist at the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies’ web site, ABCT.org.
Your long life
If your grandma lived to 100, there’s a good chance your days may span a century, too. “We know there are several gene variants associated with centenarians,” explains Nir Barzilai, M.D., director of the Institute for Aging Research at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. One key beneficial variant occurs in the CETP gene, which appears to raise levels of heart-healthy HDL cholesterol. Dr. Barzilai has found that 25 percent of centenarians have the CETP variant, compared with only 8 percent of those older than 60.
Override your DNA: Only about one fourth of the variation in human life span can likely be attributed to genetics, which means how you live plays a larger role in how long you live. Three key habits: keeping an eye on your weight, exercising and not smoking, researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital report. They found that a 70-year-old, diabetes-free nonsmoker who exercises two to four times a week and has normal blood pressure and weight has a 54 percent chance of living another two decades. But if she doesn’t meet three of these five conditions (for example, an overweight, chain-smoking couch potato), her chances of seeing her 90th birthday drop to 14 percent. More proof that living smart today can help you live well for years and years (and years) to come.