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Genes don’t determine your brain health

The way you live your life can actually change your genetic makeup. Rather than having a set genetic blueprint, our genes can switched on or off at different stages of our life. The field of epigenetics is showing that although our genes themselves are fixed, genetic expression is not. It is malleable and and heavily influenced by our environment and lifestyle choices we make.

It is this expression, the switching off and on of genes, that gets ‘read’ by cells in the body. This has a huge impact on our Brian health and well-being. Our lifestyle choices -- the foods we put in our bodies, the chemicals we are exposed to, how active we choose to be, even the type of people we choose to spend time with  - can actually switch off and switch on different genes. These choices can have big effects on our risk for disease, even if our genes seem to be working against us.

How can lifestyle and the environment influence the expression of genes?

Smoking is a familiar example of how our behaviours can affect our genes. We know smoking is linked to poor health outcomes. But how does this work molecularly-speaking? In this case, the carcinogens in cigarette smoke directly affect the molecules in our bodies, triggering the growth of cancer by mutating our anti-cancer genes so that they no longer function effectively.

But what's found to be equally true is that the positive lifestyle choices we make -- most notably, eating right and exercising -- may have just as powerful an effect on our genetic makeup. For example, eating well can "turn off" the genes that put you at higher risk for brain problems, like Alzheimer’s disease; and exercise can persuade juvenile cells to become brain cells to boots your memory. So lifestyle choices like diet and exercise can work at the genetic level to modify our risk for health problems.

The ‘environment’ of our bodies, as well as our physical and work environment has a huge influence on our brains. Yet people often neglect fundamental aspects of their physical and mental health, taking their body and brain for granted and convincing themselves they can get away with sub-optimal levels of sleep, poor nutrition, drinking too much, smoking and either lack of exercise, or a punishing fitness regime, without taking a hit on their brain function.

If you think about it for a minute though, the impact on their brain is obvious. Symptoms may range from mental ‘fog’ to inability to make decisions, low-level anxiety that makes deep focus difficult, irritability and lack of motivation. It’s easy to mis-attribute these symptoms to other causes when a few practical changes would solve the problem and restore thinking and brain function to a healthy level.

The influence that your life style and environment have on the expression of your genes can also have a huge impact on your risk for health problems later in life. For example, your risk for developing brain diseases, like Alzheimer’s are heavily influenced by the lifestyle choices you make. There is genetic aspect to Alzheimer’s. Variants of the APOE genes  - the APOE4 allele - are linked to risk of Alzheimer’s’ disease. And 5% of Alzheimer’s case have a strong genetic component.

But even if you inherit this APOE4 genetic variant, it is not set in stone you will go onto develop Alzheimer’s. Research has shown that people with this so called Alzheimer gene who live healthy lives in a healthy environment have managed to live a full life without ever develop dementia. This strongly suggest that your lifestyle can actually change the expression of genes that are linked to a risk of Brian diseases like Alzheimer’s. 

We can actually change the expression of 90% of our genes that have a direct bearing on our health and longevity. But it's not the genes themselves that are changed by lifestyle or environmental factors; it’s the molecules around them, which can affect how active genes are expressed.

That our lifestyles can affect our genes in significant ways is both sobering and encouraging. On one hand, our genes affect our brain health, since they can put us at varying levels of risk for brain diseases and mental health problems. And on the other, our lifestyles also affect our health in significant ways at the level of the gene. Eating healthily can "turn off" the genes that put us at higher risk for brain problems.

We are not completely at the mercy of our genes. In many ways, they are at the mercy of our health and lifestyle decisions and habits. Family history can be a strong predictor of disease, but we have at least some power to change it. Making healthy lifestyle choices could mean the difference between experiencing a significant brain health issue and avoiding them. 

There’s not one silver lifestyle bullet - multiple lifestyle changes aggregate together to protect your brain. Eat a healthy diet that is nutritionally dense and that helps reduce inflammation. Consider fasting on occasions. Exercise your body and brain by learning new things. Manage your blood sugar. Get a good night’s sleep. Reduce your stress. Reduce exposure to toxins. Nurture your gut microbiome.

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