Can healthy habits counter genetics?

Mark DeHaven, PhD, Health Institutes of Texas professor for the Health Science Center and director of research for the Primary Care Research Institute, is conducting the first large-scale faith- and community-based participatory research trial in the country to determine whether or not people can reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, even if genetically predisposed for these diseases, while living in the real world. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

People who live in an environment where nutrition and exercise are carefully monitored can reduce their risk for these diseases, even if their genes are working against them. However, most people do not live in a controlled environment, eat what they like and have access to, and often do not exercise.

DeHaven’s GoodNEWS (Genes, Nutrition, Exercise, Wellness and Spiritual Growth) Program works with African-American church attendees in South Dallas to determine if community-based efforts to encourage healthy diets and physical activity  reduce risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Health care accounts for 10 percent of a person’s risk of premature mortality. Lifestyle and behaviors represent 50 percent of the risk. Twenty percent is related to environment, and another 20 percent is genetics.

"This tells us that we do have a great deal of control over our health," DeHaven said. "Our study participants had always assumed they would die young because their relatives died young. Now they get it – they know that they can influence their risk factors for these diseases. They know they don’t have to die young."

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