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These days, it seems like half the studies popping up are looking for the “genetic cause” of something. They’ve found genetic causes for ADHD, autism, diabetes, and even obesity. If it’s epidemic in our society today, you better believe they’ve either found or are searching for the “genetic cause” of that disease.
But this idea is flawed. Not everything is caused by genetics. And just because something is in our genes, does not mean it has to happen! My parents are both overweight — my brother and I are not. Are we “genetically predisposed?” Sure. Was I, at one point, heavier than I am now and struggling? Yes. But since genetics are not the whole story, I’m now at a normal weight and I don’t struggle.
The real reason that people want to blame genetics, I believe, is so that they are not responsible for their own health. “There’s nothing I can do,” they explain, “it’s genetic.”
Do Genetics Play a Role?
Nobody is denying that some things are genetic. For example, my father is colorblind. I carry the gene for it. Any son of mine has a 50/50 chance of being colorblind, too. There’s nothing I can do about that. Or how tall my kids are, or what color their hair is…. It’s all genetic.
And yes, there are genes that play in disease, too. Huntington’s is genetic. Diabetes (type I) is genetic. There’s even a gene for breast cancer, BRCA-1 or BRCA-2. Having these genes does increase your susceptibility to developing these illnesses.
But do you have to, in all cases? No.
The choices that we make in life affect how our genes are expressed. We’re not born with pre-programmed genes that just “do” stuff to us, regardless of our choices. Choosing to eat a poor diet, get no exercise, drink and smoke heavily, etc. is going to seriously increase your chances of experiencing disease, genetic or otherwise. Most people realize that.
But a lot of people don’t believe that they can really do anything about their disease, whatever it is. Most people aren’t extreme enough to *only* eat junk food, and drink and smoke heavily. Most people attempt to eat what is considered a ‘balanced’ diet in this country, not smoke, and drink only in moderation. So they don’t see any connection between their lifestyle and what happens to them. “I was only following the usual advice, and I got sick anyway.” (Never mind that between 50 and 80% of the population now suffer from some serious illness; clearly ‘the usual advice’ isn’t working!)
Why is Blaming Genetics Bad?
There is a two-fold answer here: part one is a total lack of responsibility for one’s choices, and part two is over reliance on the medical system.
The lack of responsibility is really astounding to me: “I can’t help that I’m overweight, I’m just destined to be because my whole family is.” Might that be because your whole family chooses a similar lifestyle? And might you be able to change that?
Or, “Autism is only genetic and has nothing to do with environment at all.” Okay, I know that no parent wants to think that any choice s/he made in good faith could be partially responsible for their child’s disorder, but it might be. Whether that’s poor food (gut damage), vaccines, environmental pollution, etc. those things could be partly responsible!
The thing is, people don’t really want to be responsible for their own health. They don’t want to acknowledge that some choice they’ve made could be seriously responsible for any issues they’re facing. They don’t want to change. And if the root or primary cause of their problems is genetic, well…there was nothing they could have done, anyway. Right?
It pains me to see people blame uncontrollable factors for their illness when I know that probably a large part could be eliminated or at least controlled better by making different choices. I don’t want people to be sick. I want them to feel well and have energy and enjoy life!
But it’s harder to change than it is to stay the same. It’s harder to sort through all the conflicting information out there than to just believe whatever your doctor says. I think that most people do mean well, but they do not know who to believe or what will really help. It’s confusing to them. And most changes advocated are fairly dramatic, and often leave people feeling deprived and unhappy. It’s easier to throw up your hands and say, “I give up. This isn’t helping anyway. There’s nothing I can do.”
Over Reliance on Medicine
If you don’t know the answer, and you aren’t feeling well, your doctor is the place to turn. But doctors are there to treat disease. They are there to manage disease, look for signs of disease and generally “handle disease.” They are sick care. Their usual solution to keeping people healthy is to screen them regularly for disease (annual physicals, perhaps with additional screening tests depending on concerns).
But there’s controversy in this approach. Sometimes people have very normal variations in their bodies (we’re not all the same) that can lead to additional tests and worry. Sometimes tests come back with a false result — positive or negative. There are huge concerns about exposure to radiation via mammograms or CT scans! In fact, some studies have even shown that in patients who carry the BRCA-1 gene (who are recommended to get at least annual mammograms from their early 20s, possibly more frequent if anything ‘unusual’ is detected), those who follow the recommendations are more likely to develop breast cancer than those who are screened less frequently!
It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy: “Thank goodness I had all those screenings and took all that preventative medication, or I’d be worse off than I am now!” — But no one can possibly know that. Perhaps an illness would have gone undetected and untreated. But perhaps the ‘prevention’ contributed to the development of said illness. There is no way to tell which is the case for any particular individual. Some feel more comfortable having the screenings, because “at least I’m doing something,” but all they’re really doing is searching for disease. They’re not doing anything to actively prevent disease.
(Which is why I hate the message that major cancer organizations spread: “Awareness!” Thanks, but we are all aware of cancer in various forms, especially the ones that one-third to one-half of the population will develop in their life time. What we need is a message of prevention. All that ‘awareness’ really does is create fundraising opportunities, and most of that money goes to conventional treatments, not research into prevention, which is what we all need.
(I also super hate the language “___ lowers your risk of cancer!” No, “Not _____ increases your risk of cancer!” Smoking increases your risk of cancer. Not eating broccoli or other fresh vegetables increases your risk of cancer. Not exercising increases your risk of cancer. Not breastfeeding increases your risk of cancer. And so on. Saying that something ‘decreases your risk’ supposes that cancer is generally normal and unavoidable and lets us psychologically believe that in doing that thing, you are doing a good job and being healthy — ‘decreasing’ your risk. When in reality, not doing all these things is causing you harm and increasing your risk. That is psychologically uncomfortable to people so they don’t phrase it that way. But that is the truth. I could write an entire post just about the language we use in order to be PC and make people feel good about living less-than-ideal lives, but I won’t; at least not now. And no, I don’t think we can actually live ‘ideal’ lives, but if we realized the true risk of our behaviors we could choose which risks to take more carefully.)
What Do We Do About Genetics VS. Lifestyle?
There is just not “one” reason why we experience disease. It is possibly to be genetically predisposed towards a disease, and in that case, one must be a lot more careful not to do anything that could increase the risks of developing that disease. But even in this case, one is not guaranteed to develop the disease.
Take, for example, someone I know. For quite awhile in her adult life, she felt that she was potentially at risk for breast cancer because her aunt had suffered from it (so did mine, actually). Her mother, though — now in her late 70s — has not had any issues. I once asked her what their lifestyles and diets were like. In describing her mother: “Oh, she lived on a farm and cooked everything from scratch, we never had processed foods.” In describing her aunt, “She never cooked, she lived on processed foods and rarely exercised.” The real answer there wasn’t genetic, but lifestyle. I tried to explain that if she chose a healthy lifestyle that she need not worry so much about her own risk!
It’s not easy to choose to take care of your health — to read the research, make sense of the information, make the ‘best’ choices (for your situation) even if they are not easy. It’s not easy to cook from scratch all the time. It’s not easy to choose your own health care or look for alternative doctors. It’s not easy to try special diets to improve your health! But is it worth it? Absolutely.
While genetics can play a role, we need to stop blaming them as ‘the answer’ to our problems. They are not. We are not helpless to just play the hand we’ve been dealt. We can do something about it! And I know this from personal experience. I’ve spoken about our story a bit before, but here’s the thing: we once thought that digestive issues were just “the hand we’d been dealt” and that there was nothing we could do but endure and treat the symptoms. It was genetic, and that was that. Our children would suffer too and hate us for it.
But that’s not how it turned out. We don’t suffer anymore and our children don’t either. We know it’s not “just genetic;” it was something that we could help, and we did! Not easily, and we’re still not done “fixing” it, but we are a world away from where we were five years ago. And although it hasn’t been an easy road, I’m glad we did not blame it on genetics and just accept that we were meant to deal with those issues forever!
What do you think? Do people blame “genetics” too much?
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