The Battle Between Genetics and Lifestyle

How much of a battle is it, really? At a recent gathering of friends, the conversation steered over to health: an increasingly common topic as we head into our 60s and beyond, and angst about the extra weight, the tougher it is to do that workout, the vaccines we now need! But more specifically, we were talking about genetics verses lifestyle, and which one was the predominant determinant of health. (Admittedly, I’ve been over-exposed on this as you may have read in my recent article 1,234 Relatives and Counting – regarding my 23andMe data.) Everyone had an opinion but what are the real facts… I decided to see exactly what I could dig up on the subject.

First, between 1987 and 1997, several research studies concluded that genetics only account for about 20 to 30 percent of your chance of surviving until the age of 85. (Finch and Tanzi 1997, Ljungquist 1998, Mousseau and Roff 1987, etc.). Another study from 2006 confirmed these findings. Then there was a Swedish study – again, on board with these other studies. Wow. Turns out we have a lot more control over our health and longevity than many may think.

So then, the question really becomes: if the science is telling us we’re going to live longer – and better (pushing off chronic conditions) – by modifying our “lifestyle,” how can we not do that? I understand we cannot move the needle on everything. I’ve talked about this at length before, especially in my articles about bone health, where – for me – the genetic factors did come in to play, and exercise and nutrition were not sufficient. And I did have to resort to medications. But then, I could – and will – take the viewpoint that my osteoporosis would have been worse without all those lifestyle changes.

So for which diseases can lifestyle changes – which include a commitment to improve our exercise and nutrition habits; limit alcohol consumption; don’t smoke; get adequate sleep; practice positive thinking and/or meditate; find purpose in our lives – reduce our risk? The science says we can affect the probabilities for at least all of these:
coronary artery disease
hypertension and stroke
type 2 diabetes
many cancers including smoking-related, breast cancer and colon cancers
chronic respiratory diseases
Alzheimer’s and other dementia
dental disease
depression and anxiety

That’s a pretty impressive list. If you agree and you’d like to minimize the chances that genetics will determine your overall health and longevity, we have our next Challenge -2.0 – for you. A very doable one. You’ll also find our first challenge in the Challenge 2.0 post, as we set the building blocks for a sustainably healthier life: challenge by challenge. You may even have one that you’d like to share.

Susan Ross

Susan Ross

Susan is founder/curator/blogger of, a site devoted to women approaching their 60s and beyond who are interested in benefiting from a community of women sharing their lives, experiences, learnings, and wisdom. Now is our time and we rock!
Susan Ross

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