Guest Column: How genetics and behaviors affect our health

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RBC | You might have heard me say “Health is in the genes that choose us and the jeans we choose.” I was recently asked about this comment and explanation is probably in order.

Modern research reveals that health is achieved via many avenues. It is generally accepted that 40 percent of our health is due to behaviors (what we eat, our activity level, tobacco use, wearing a seatbelt, brushing our teeth, etc). Thirty percent of our health is due to our genetics. Twenty percent is due to our social and environment situations (do we live on a nuclear waste site, is our water safe for drinking, were we raised in a home with lots of second-hand smoke, did we have peers that drank and partied often, etc). The last 10 percent is due to health care (clinic, hospitals, etc).
Although epi-genetics is real—the concept that we are constantly changing our gene expression—we cannot change our genetic code. Genes choose us. Science continues to work on altering genes and how they are expressed, but in general, the average person in Rio Blanco County can’t change their genes.
However, we do get to choose and change our behaviors. Like choosing the “jeans” we wear each day. We can choose none, one or two cups of coffee; we choose to wear seatbelts; we choose to brush our teeth; we choose to use tobacco or not. We can control 40 percent of our health destiny just by choices. Choosing the right “jeans.”
This brings us to an interesting discussion on substance use disorder or SUD. This is the accepted clinical term for individuals battling addiction to one of many substances. So it is relevant to say that some of the disorder can be controlled by changing behavior, changing social environments and some of it can’t. Some of the disorder is genetic, and some needs direct clinical intervention.
Research is revealing more and more about the genetic component of addiction. A physician friend of mine recently sent me information on this. Things like “the A1 allele of the dopamine receptor gene DRD2 is more common in people addicted to alcohol or cocaine. Alcoholism is rare in people with two copies of the ALDH*2 gene variation. And mice lacking the Creb gene are less likely to develop morphine dependence”. I studied genetics too long ago to completely understand these points without a book and a few google searches. The point being…..some of addiction is genetic.
If a certain set of genes chose you, recovery will be difficult. We as a society cannot continue to judge people with addiction the same way we have.
If you choose a pair of jeans because they are the only ones available and they turn out to not fit and cause you pain, you have two choices: keep wearing the jeans or get help finding a different pair of jeans. Help finding the new jeans is difficult in Rio Blanco County.

Julie Drake
By JULIE DRAKE | RBC Director of Public Health