It’s Not Genetics, Folks

"Alzheimer's is growing at an alarming rate in the United States and around the world," said William Thies, PhD, Alzheimer's Association Chief Medical and Scientific Officer.
Open any newspaper and you’re likely to find an article that starts with a sentence similar to the one above. But in place of the word “Alzheimer’s”, you might see type II diabetes, cancer, chronic kidney disease… take your pick. Yet, more often than not, when you read about the cause of these diseases, you’re told that new research shows it’s partially genetic. For example, WebMD starts it’s overview on Alzheimer’s this way:

Am I the only one who finds this illogical? Genes stay relatively constant over generations. Mutations are uncommon. How then, could the genes I inherited carry most of the risk? Didn’t my ancestors give me these genes? Why were they much less likely to get Alzheimer’s than I am?
“Will you ever get Alzheimer's disease? Genetics may have the answer. The genes you've inherited carry most of the risk, an identical-twin study shows.”
To clarify, I don’t mean to say that what researchers have uncovered about genetic causes of disease is inaccurate. I’m just not sure it’s where research should be focused. Some people are genetically more vulnerable than others to develop Alzheimer’s when exposed to conditions that cause Alzheimer’s. That’s what researchers are now coming to understand. But the huge increase in disease rates we keep hearing about must logically be caused by changes to the conditions we’re exposed to, not to changes in genes.
Why isn’t research focused on finding which recent changes to our environment are making us sick?
This much I know: I may or may not have good Alzheimer’s genes. I have no control over that. I do, however, have control over what I put in and on my body. Maybe if I’m kind to my body, I’ll still remember my kids’ names a few decades from now.
Shared with Food Renegade and Food Trip Friday.


The Table of Promise said...

Have you ever read/ heard of the book 'The Family That Couldn't Sleep'? It is an absolutely fascinating look at Alzheimer's, Mad Cow and other diseases believed to be caused by prions, or misshapen proteins created by our own bodies.

I read it because I thought it was going to be a medical mystery, and it turned out to be another food book! It is expertly written and reads like a novel. It's a real page turner and I learned something too. I suggest you check it out.

Ruth @ Ruth's Real Food said...

I haven't, but I'll check it out. Thanks for the suggestion. I'm planning to order some books soon.

Danielle said...

Great post! It makes you wonder who is writing these genes-heavy articles, and what their angle is.

Ruth @ Ruth's Real Food said...

When you say it's genetic, it takes the focus away from prevention. You look for a cure.

Pharmaceutical companies are in the business of selling cures, not dealing with prevention. Food manufacturers and the people who make your toothpaste or fertilizer or paint or whatever don't want to hear that an element in their product causes cancer.

Genetics turns the focus away from prevention. That's my guess, anyway.

Breanna said...

So many science articles get this basic thing wrong: that genetic and environmental causes are opposites.

For example, adult height is something like 95% heritable. If you imagine an undernourished community and look at the heights of fathers and sons, the taller fathers will have the taller sons. Say, father A is 5'6" and father B is 5'2". When their sons are little, say there is a drastic increase in the nutrition available. Son A might grow to 6' tall, and son B might grow to 5'8" tall. The increase in their height over their fathers' is entirely due to environmental factors, yet height is still almost entirely genetic. The shorter father still had the shorter son.

So all the research that focuses on genetics rather misses the point. It only measures differences between people at a given time, when what we really need to know is why there has been a change across time.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, genetics has something to do with things like eye color and height, etc., but not as much as one would think. I believe the old adage which says we inherit more of our genetic make-up from our grandparents than we do from our parents. In my family, that is most certainly true. It's very evident.

Also, my dad was only about 5'10" and I have twin brothers who are both well over that - one is 6'4" and one is 6'6". They were identical at birth (so identical my Mom had to put a mark on the bottom of a foot to tell them apart). As adults they are still very similar in looks but not identical. It is interesting to me, however, to hear them talk about how they really can sense things about each other, even though they live 25 miles apart. One can sense when something is wrong with the other. It's just totally weird, but they say it's been that way since they were kids, they just didn't understand it back then, so didn't think to mention it. My Mom noticed it once when they were about 12 because one brother broke his shoulder falling off a horse and the other brother, who was at home, told Mom right away that he knew his brother was hurt. I don't know that I would call things like that genetic. Psychogenetic maybe?

Anonymous said...

Also, just as an aside, I would NEVER depend on information from WebMD. They are a very baised organization and I would certainly look to another source. But that's just me.

travis said...

You can even ask hospice care providers about this. Each medical case is unique to the individual's condition.

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