It’s Genetics (1/7/12)
Sorry, You’re All Flawed
People often want to know the causes of their illnesses. They often hear the phrase “it’s genetics.”
The answer provokes little solace and some fear.
Aid is provided in the sense there is “an explanation.” But an explanation that speaks to innate, uncontrollable flaws?
What will happen to me next, people wonder. And to my children.
The truth is that human beings are genetically “flawed” to a surprisingly similar extent. And that fact has lots of implications for how we view health and health care.
Database have many uses. One, the 1,000 Genomes Project, tries to look at the commonalities and differences of global humanity.
It’s a study where 1,000 people – all healthy – and from all over the globe – have their gene sequences mapped.
A recent look at 179 people done at Cardiff University in Wales showed something very interesting:
1. The average human had 400 genetic flaws – mutations that could provoke harm
2. Most people had similar numbers of flaws – though different ones
3. Many had DNA changes closely associated with disease – though almost uniformly without experiencing the disease itself.
Health and Disease
The Cardiff study brings up something that is frequently forgotten in human affairs – the overwhelming commonality of humanity. Our hierarchical brains allows us to assess and pinpoint degrees of desirability with astounding accuracy – from the chip in a polished nail to a nose hooked just the slightest imaginable distance to miniscule runs in a stocking. We can assess status symbols with near universal, microscopic lenses.
Yet the truth is that humanity almost died out about 70-75,000 years ago. We come from the same place. Underneath the hood we are remarkably alike.
And that’s what the Cardiff study declares, too. We are alike – uncommonly alike. So alike that the differences between us – those we spend a lifetime describing, cataloging, and creating – may be tiny compared to the sameness of the cloth from which we come.
Which has a lot of implications.
Health and Disease
Who stays healthy? Who gets sick? If genetics is destiny, what is the greatest cause of difference?
If you are born with this certain genetic mutation in Kenya, nothing bad will happen to you; born with the same flaw next to a rubber plant in Akron, Ohio, and you may suffer bladder cancer at an early age.
Or your immune system carries an unusual, powerful mutation. If you never see the AIDS virus your life will roll on unaffected. But if you do, you may be able to shrug off the virus that kills tens of millions – and show researchers a way to help save the rest.
The Cardiff study looked only at a few mutations of the innumerable number that exist. Many will operate in so called “junk” DNA. Junk DNA constitutes most of our genome, and contains within what are now estimated as four to 40 million different genetic switches.
Since we thought junk DNA was junk, we know precious little about it – which helps explain our enormous ignorance of genetics itself, and of cancer genetics in particular.
Yet even with our ignorance of most of our genetic makeup, the point remains – chance determines much of life. It helps determines what genes are inherited in the experimental reshuffling of genes that occurs with every new human being. It helps determine so much of what happens to us.
But much remains under our control.
Environment and Lifestyle
All human beings may be equal – but some are more equal than others.
Researchers have been amazed at the increased lifespan of the past few decades. But more recent data points to a factor most of us don’t think about – air pollution.
The air has gotten cleaner. Thirty years ago consulting firms declared proclaimed it would cost American industry its competitiveness and wither millions of jobs – but the Clean Air Act saved jobs.
And lives. Recent estimates are 18% of added lifespan in recent decades is due to decreased air pollution.
Commonly afflicted as we are with similar propensities to disease, making the environment cleaner helps us all.
As does a lifestyle that fits how the human body normally regenerates.
We last longer and live better through eating whole, varied plants. We last longer when we regularly physically move. We last longer when we socialize and commune with one another. We last longer and feel better when we know how to rest.
Common things commonly help us.
Which means there are always reasons to look at buildings, and transport, and all economic activity for their effects not just on money but on health.
For greenspace can save more lives than new hospitals. And cunningly designed cities can make people healthier and happier, while helping preserve the environment that’s left.
Health and Health Care
If humans are commonly afflicted with propensities to illness, it also argues for something enshrined in most developed and undeveloped countries – universal health care.
Chance can determine much of who lives or dies. Who gets a tumor and stays free.. Who is struck in a car accident and who drives by unscathed.
There are moral, social, political arguments for providing basic health services for all members of society.
But there are also biological ones. We can all be hurt. And we can all help each other.
Common things are common. The commonest thing should be our humanity.
And we have another reason to amplify for it – underneath the skin, humans are remarkably alike – and remarkably and similarly vulnerable.
Down to our genes.
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