Macro study shows that a healthy lifestyle can compensate for genetics | Health


Science has long demonstrated that a healthy lifestyle improves people’s quality of life, increases life expectancy, reduces the prevalence of certain chronic diseases and considerably reduces mortality. But what about people who are genetically predisposed to having a shorter life? According to research conducted in Iceland, it is estimated that around 4% of the population carries what are known as actionable genotypes, i.e. genotypes associated with a shorter life span because they increase the risk of developing a disease for which preventive or therapeutic measures are available. In these cases, can a healthy lifestyle also have a big enough of an impact to reverse this predisposition?

This question has been answered by a study recently published in the scientific journal BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine, based on data from more than 350,000 participants in the United Kingdom Biobank who were followed for an average of 13 years. The study found that genetics and lifestyles have an independent impact on people’s life expectancy; but that a healthy lifestyle can compensate for genetic risks and considerably extend the life of people with a genotype associated with a shorter life span.

Specifically, according to the research results, people with a high genetic risk of a shorter life have a 21% increased risk of premature death compared with those with a low genetic risk, regardless of their lifestyle. On the other hand, people with unhealthy lifestyles have a 78% increased chance of early death, regardless of their genetic risk. But most importantly, the research found that people with a high genetic risk of a shorter life span could reduce the risk by around 62%, and increase their life expectancy by approximately 5.22 years when they turn 40.

“This is the first time that research has been conducted to understand to what extent a healthy lifestyle can counteract genetics,” Professor Xifeng Wu, a member of the Department of Big Data in Health Sciences at Zhejiang University School of Medicine (China), explains to EL PAÍS, stressing that the research results demonstrate the importance of “focusing on developing and maintaining healthy habits, regardless of what our genes say.”

“It is a very interesting study because it makes a joint assessment of genetics and lifestyle habits, to demonstrate that genetics, although it is a factor that acts independently on life expectancy, does not have the last word,” says Almudena Beltrán de Miguel, a specialist in internal medicine, who argues that this type of study offers medical professionals a “pathway” towards a more participatory medicine “in which the patient is encouraged to take control of his or her own health.”

What is meant by a healthy lifestyle?

The study evaluated several aspects related to a healthy lifestyle, including not smoking, maintaining moderate alcohol consumption, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy body weight, ensuring adequate sleep duration, and following a healthy diet. Based on this, the study participants were grouped into three lifestyle categories: favorable, intermediate and unfavorable.

“In the study we saw that all of these factors can significantly offset the genetic risk of a shorter life expectancy, but we identified an optimal lifestyle combination that offered the best benefits for prolonging human life and that contained four lifestyle factors: not smoking, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining adequate sleep duration and following a healthy diet,” explains Xifeng Wu.

“There is great work to be done on sleep, because until now almost no one included it as a healthy lifestyle habit. And as this study shows that it is, both from a physical and psychological point of view. My feeling is that we take little care of sleep hygiene and that we do not address it enough in consultations,” says Almudena Beltrán.

Her opinion is shared by Ángel Gil de Miguel, professor of Preventive Medicine and Public Health at the Rey Juan Carlos University of Madrid, who adds that more emphasis needs to put on promoting healthy diets and reducing sugar consumption. “We are increasingly seeing Type 2 diabetes in people in their 50s, when previously this disease appeared in people from the age of 65.″

Based on the results of the study, Xifeng Wu believes that policy decisions regarding public health should focus on “promoting health education, encouraging preventive medical check-ups, and providing personalized health management to high genetic risk groups to reduce risk and improve public health.”

Ángel Gil de Miguel also argues that education on healthy lifestyles is key. “You have to start from school to create those habits, because what has been seen in other studies is that, if you are trained in good habits as a child, this marks you and is recorded. And yes, it is possible that from 18 to 35 you go wild, but from 40 onwards what you learned as a child comes back,” he says.

An opinion shared by Almudena Beltrán, who points out: “It is never too late to change lifestyle habits.”

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