Genetic Health Aging Wear Tear

Genes play a huge part in the normal aging process. Your hair turns gray or your skin wrinkles because the genes that provided hair color or skin elasticity have stopped working. This is a normal part of the aging process.

Your DNA also plays a big role in whether you may be susceptible to age-related diseases, or if you are likely to live longer and stay healthy. Your genes can give you a clue about what to expect of your health after you retire.

Genetic Links to Aging

A certain set of genes maintain DNA and ensure normal cell division. As people reach old age, these cells stop functioning normally. When this happens, damaged genetic material reproduces, causing more damaged cells.

Also, certain genes behave differently after a person passes middle age. These genes affect:

  • bone formation
  • inflammation
  • kidney function
  • muscle function.

Some people from particularly healthy families have genetic variations that offer protective benefits to shield them from age-related sicknesses. Scientists are studying and trying to isolate these anti aging genes so that they can mimic their effects with drugs. They hope to help people live longer, healthier lives.

What Genetic Tests Tell Us

Genetic tests scan your DNA for mutations that may cause age-related disease, such as:

  • Alzheimer’s
  • cancer
  • diabetes
  • heart disease
  • stroke.

Genetic tests look for inherited mutations, which are a key to your family history. Common inherited disorders are diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure. They also look for sporadic mutations, like most cancers, that are caused by environmental factors.

If a mutation is found, it is flagged so that you are aware of it. The presence of a mutation does not mean that you already have the disease.

If the mutation you are tested for is not found, you don’t have an increased risk of contracting the disease. For example, if you discover through genetic testing that you don’t have a mutation for cancer, you can’t be certain that you won’t get cancer. A negative result means that you don’t have a higher risk than the general population.

To help you decide whether you could benefit from genetic testing, start with a family history search to find out whether any inherited disorders run in your family.

When You Get a Positive Result

Testing positive for a genetic mutation for an age-related disease like diabetes or Alzheimer’s can be scary. You might easily forget that having the mutation does not mean that you will definitely get the disorder.

Many people enjoy a healthy life into their eighties and beyond, despite having a genetic marker for a disorder. If you have a mutation, you simply have a genetically higher risk for that disease than the rest of the general public. But it doesn’t mean that you will absolutely get it.

A positive result on a genetic test often serves as a wakeup call. Learning about disease risk often prompts people to take better care of themselves, follow stricter diets, exercise and see their doctors more often for screening, prevention and treatment.

Seeking Treatment

If you find that you have a tendency toward developing a certain disorder, you can take steps to prevent it.

First and foremost, keep an open line of communication with your health care provider. If you have had a genetic test done, talk to your doctor about your results. He or she can put things into perspective for you, discuss any fears you may have and recommend treatment options.

You can also follow a healthy lifestyle by:

  • eating a healthy diet rich in antioxidants
  • exercising regularly
  • getting routine tests and screenings for cancer, high blood pressure or whatever disorder you are at risk of developing
  • drinking green tea
  • seeing your doctor at least once a year
  • limiting your exposure to direct sunlight.

Resources

Miller, J. (2007). Is aging a disease? A conversation with Cynthia Kenyon. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from the UCSF Web site: http://www.ucsf.edu/science-cafe/conversations/kenyon2/.

Singer, E. (2008). The secrets of anti-aging genes: A new study asks why some people stay healthy into old age. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from the Technology Review Web site: http://www.technologyreview.com/biomedicine/21092/page1/.

Trivedi, B.P. (2000). “Gene chip” studies of aging genes. Retrieved November 20, 2008, from the GNN Web site: http://www.genomenewsnetwork.org/articles/03_00/aging_3_30.shtml.