Baffled by Numbers

Navigating information towards better health decisions.

Blue Is the Color of My Genes

Are we predetermined by our genes or do we have a say here?

Blue is my color, which is very easy to figure once you enter my home. The sofas, bathroom tiles, towels, the pots and pans, even the spatula – are all blue. When a neighbor who happens to be an expert in the genetics of pain came over for a work meeting, I served him water in my nicest turquoise glasses. Another shade of blue.

The neighbor remarked that our genes are designed so we'll love the color blue and derive pleasure from it, I felt as if a central part of my identity was ripped out and turned into something out of a science fiction novel – just a few binary codes that I cannot change, which are sitting there, dictating my preferences. Is that all I am? A pre-programmed genetic code waiting to unfold?

What about my love of swimming and the smell of lily of the valley? Are these just coded into my DNA.? And are there some diseases coded beside them?

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Being an adopted child, genes are a mystery. So perhaps, instead of trying so hard to be creative and healthy, I should just lay back and see what genetics has in store for me?

 In the meantime, in another corner of the world, a group of extra smart women from the Department of Twin Research at Kings College London had a similar idea. They put together TEDxKingsCollegeLondon under the theme"Beyond the genes: Identity, health, culture", a  and they did do a great job by bringing together a group of speakers and TED Talks videos  presenting not only genetic propensities and characteristics, but also how people use, overcome, or override them. For those new to this concept, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events that bring people together to share a TED-like experience, a nonprofit organization devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading

 Yes, there was a talk about genetic propensity for eye disease such as glaucoma by Chris Hammond, a Professor of Ophtalmology. And Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Center in Cambridge spoke about research from the University of California (UCSD), indicating that if a child has a strong preference for looking at patterns over faces, they may be autistic.

But that does not mean we are doomed by our genes. Tim Spector, Director of TwinsUK, on the other hand, spoke about the influence that our own lifestyle and behavior may have in the genetic make up of our children and grandchildren by switching on and off certain genes via a process called epigenetics.

There was also a talk from the sassy Kathy Lette, whose son is on the autistic spectrum. She urged the audience to view autistic people as people with potential, who can be surprisingly original, even astute. Once, when chopping onions she was teary, and her son asked "If onion makes you cry, are there vegetables that make you happy?" Lette definitely set the example for accepting her son as his genes determined he would be, and working to improve his lot, through admirable frankness and courage, including disclosing his comment to her, in the presence of Hugh Jackman (!) that she should take care of the hair on her upper lip.

Another mother, Caroline White, reshaped reality for herself and Sebastian, her son who has Down Syndrome. Caroline raged against the 'normal' representation of families and children in the media, essentially asking whether only people who matched the 'healthy' genetic code are acceptable as models in ads and commercials. Through her efforts and advocacy, her son appeared in a Marks & Spencer Christmas campaign, among others, thereby breaking the unspoken ban on hiring children with the 'wrong' genetic makeup.

 The message about overcoming one's genes is not just emotionally inspiring, it can also extend your lifespan. Claire Steves, recipient of a Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship, studies ageing with the aid of identical twins. Turns out that the one factor determining which twin will age well and which one will grow ill, is how strong their leg muscles are. Good old walking, running, or any other physical activity, can and does make the difference between those who develop chronic disease, and their twins, who were dealt the exact same deck of genes but are however healthy. I'm not sure what Dr. Steves would think about my love of swimming and smelling lilies, but I do know that she would say I should take care of my health, regardless of my genetics.  The star cast of the TEDxKingsCollegeLondonconference have convinced me that, mystery genes notwithstanding, I can and should take care of my body, and make sure I keep a positive attitude, even when facing major predicaments. For now I prefer to think that the ability to do is not just another pre-programmed part of my genetic makeup.

 And here is the link to the event, because it was even greater than I described it

http://www.tedxkingscollegelondon.com/

Talya Miron-Shatz, Ph.D., is a researcher at Princeton University. She specializes in medical decision making of patients and health professionals.

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