If you have a family history of heart disease, here’s some good news: a healthy diet and lifestyle can actually influence your genes and reduce your risk of disease. According to a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and not smoking can turn off disease-causing genes, and may cut your risk of developing and dying from cardiovascular disease (CVD) in half.

Scientists at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital analyzed data from four large studies involving over 55,000 people. They developed a lifestyle score based on whether people smoked; if they ate a diet featuring fruit, vegetables, fish, whole grains and nuts; if they exercised at least once a week; and whether or not they were obese. Lifestyle scores were then compared to a genetic score based on 50 genes associated with heart disease. What these researchers discovered was remarkable. People who inherited the genes for CVD from their parents had double the risk of developing heart disease; but a healthy lifestyle cut their risk in half. Conversely, people with ‘good’ genes (no family history of CVD), lowered their genetic protection and doubled their risk of disease if they smoked, had a poor diet, were inactive and/or obese.

Thanks to advances in genetic research, scientists can now observe the direct effects that diet, exercise, stress, and other lifestyle habits have on our genetic code – the unique cellular operating system we inherit from our parents. In 2008, Dr. Dean Ornish demonstrated how healthy lifestyle choices influence cancer-causing genes in a small population of men with early stage prostate cancer. Ornish and his team analyzed the effects of a plant-based diet, regular exercise, stress management and peer and family support on 500 genes known to either promote or protect against prostate cancer. Remarkably, healthy habits turned off the genes that stimulate cancer growth, and turned on genes that help the body to stop cancer in its tracks. Other studies have demonstrated that healthy lifestyle choices can also turn off genes that promote inflammation, weight gain, obesity, and even depression.

In spite of advances in medicine, CVD is still the number one killer of adults in the United States, and people with a family history are doubly at risk. However, research is proving that the lifestyle choices we make everyday can influence the genes we inherit, and possibly change the course of disease.

Each month, at the YRMC Pendleton Center in Prescott, the Reversing Heart Disease Support Group meets to explore the diet and lifestyle strategies that Dr. Ornish and other prominent physicians recommend for preventing, treating and reversing cardiovascular and other chronic diseases.  The group meets on the second Tuesday of each month from 3-4 pm and is free to anyone in the community.  For more information, call Rita Carey Rubin at 928-771-5794.