Epigenetics: Why Your Lifestyle Choices May Leave Your Family a Legacy of Health

Medically reviewed in November 2020

Updated on September 1, 2021

Dr. Dean Ornish and his colleagues broke ground when they found that our lifestyle choices could turn on or off more than 500 genes that affect health. Now, new research in the emerging field of epigenetics is finding that not only may a healthy diet and lifestyle change your genes and improve your health, but choices you make can help your children and grandchildren have healthier lives.

Consider heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States for both men and women. Nearly 655,000 Americans die from it every year. That’s one in every four deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Genetic predisposition and lifestyle choices are contributing risk factors for developing cardiovascular diseases and other chronic diseases, like diabetes. Imagine if you could influence the genes you inherited that placed you at risk for such conditions. What changes would you make if you knew it would not only improve your own health, but the health of future generations, too?

Reading our genes
A July 2016 study published by scientists at Tufts University in the journal Advances in Nutrition found that epigenetics, a mechanism that directs our DNA, is far more influential on our health than we thought. By changing our diet, epigenetics may affect how our DNA can influence our health and the health of our children and grandchildren.

All of our cells have DNA, but our genes don’t know what to do without direction. Epigenetic markers (“epi” means above) tell our cells how to read genetic code. Our DNA and markers are passed onto our children. While our genetic code stays the same throughout life, epigenetic markers can change based on life changes

Studies have shown how epigenetic changes may influence our health—from inflammation, obesity and metabolic syndrome, to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and aging. This research has found that certain plant phytochemicals can influence how DNA determines the body’s response to stress, metabolism and immune function. These responses, in turn, can affect whether or not we develop certain cancers and diseases, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

How our choices affect future generations
Research has shown that the lifestyle choices you make now are vital because they affect your genetic legacy. A June 2016 study published in Cell Reports found that a mother’s obesity can impair the health of at least three later generations by causing genetic abnormalities which influence obesity-related conditions, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

An earlier study published in the journal Circulation examined the role that epigenetic changes play in heart disease and the impact of nutrition and environmental factors on inherited traits. The researchers found that a poor prenatal diet, such as inadequate intake of protein or folate during pregnancy, can result in low-birth weight. These factors can influence the risk for metabolic and cardiovascular diseases later in life.

The takeaway? By maintaining a healthy diet, exercising regularly and properly managing stress and relationships, you may be able to leave a legacy of health.

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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