Your Lifestyle May Offset Your Genes, Study Says

Healthy habits reduced odds of a heart attack, even for those with genetic risk.


Running photo via Gao

In medicine, the relationship between genes and lifestyle is always in question. How much of our health is decided at birth, and how much is up to us?

A new study from Massachusetts General Hospital says we may be able to control more than we think. According to the research, even individuals predisposed to heart disease were able to mitigate risk through healthy habits including exercising, controlling weight, eating right, and not smoking.

“The basic message of our study is that DNA is not destiny,” senior author Sekar Kathiresan said in a statement. “Many individuals—both physicians and members of the general public—have looked on genetic risk as unavoidable, but for heart attack that does not appear to be the case.”

Indeed, Kathiresan and his team found that living a healthy lifestyle may cut heart attack risk by as much as half, even for those born with genetic variants that make cardiovascular issues more likely.

The Mass General team examined data from 55,000 participants in four studies. Each individual was given a genetic risk score, based on how many of the 50 gene variants known to inflate heart attack risk he or she had. Next, each person was given a lifestyle score, determined by smoking status, body mass index, physical activity habits, and dietary patterns.

The researchers then analyzed how those two scores influenced a participant’s likelihood of suffering heart problems. While those with the highest genetic risk scores were significantly more likely to suffer cardiac events than those without a predisposition to disease, adhering to healthy lifestyle habits significantly reduced risk, regardless of genetic status. For those with the most severe genetic risk, a good lifestyle score lowered odds of a coronary incident by up to 50 percent.

The takeaway: Your DNA is important, but it isn’t a death sentence. A less-than-ideal genetic profile isn’t an excuse to give up on healthy living—quite the opposite.