The short answer: Not as much as you might think.
But before we address this point in more detail, let's back up a minute and conduct a quick biology refresher.
- Your body is made up of cells.
- Cells contain chromosomes.
- Chromosomes contain genes.
- Genes contain DNA.
- DNA provides specific instructions regarding the proteins your cells make.
- Proteins are the building blocks of life. Every part of your body—blood, bones, organs, hair, and so forth—has proteins.
You receive one set of genes from your mother. You receive another set from your father. In total, you could have anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000+ different genes. All of your genes combined are known as a "genome."
Sometimes genes have changes in the DNA known as "variants." What happens if genetic variants are present? Genetic variants might have:
- Little to no effect
- An unknown effect ("variants of uncertain significance" or VUS)
- Potentially adverse effects, meaning an increased risk for a certain disease or diseases
This is why doctors ask about your family's medical history. It all comes down to genes. So if your parents or grandparents have heart disease, for example, this could suggest you are at greater risk since you might have inherited a gene putting you at greater risk.
The key word here is "could."
Because you might not have inherited the gene putting you at greater risk. In fact, there might not even be a gene at play in this particular case, since other factors, like the environment (think toxins) or behavior (think diet) could be the culprits behind your family members' heart disease.
Here's the good news: even if you are at greater risk, it's still not a certainty that you'll develop heart disease. Because you still have some control.
And that's the big point you need to keep in mind when it comes to understanding your genes and how they affect longevity. Genes don't have as much influence over how long you'll live as you might think.
This article from Harvard Health Publishing reminds us that the increased life expectancy we've seen in the last 100 years bears out this point: the reason people are living longer has nothing to do with genes and everything to do with medical advancements and an increased focus on leading a healthy lifestyle.
The article goes on to note: "During the first 75 years of life, genes have a relatively small influence on longevity, accounting for only 20% to 25% of the reasons that you make it to that age. Not smoking, eating healthfully, getting plenty of exercise, and limiting alcohol matter the most."
Again, this is good news. Because it means we're not victims of chance or destiny—we have more control over our health and wellness than we might have originally thought.
Now, we're not suggesting that genes don't matter—they do. And in some very specific cases, genetic testing is extremely important. At PartnerMD, we test for hereditary diseases, including heart disease and cancers. In fact, we believe that the field of oncology has the best clinical evidence for the use of genetic testing currently. Genetic testing can identify high-risk individuals for hereditary cancers (BRCA genes are an example of this type of testing).
And going back to our heart disease example—one of the main reasons we test for heart disease is because of the control you still have, even if you do have a gene that puts you at greater risk. You can do things like monitor your diet, up your exercise, take certain medications (as needed and as prescribed by your physician), and so forth.
We understand that so many people want a magic formula when it comes to wellness and longevity, but that formula already exists. It involves eating better, exercising more, giving up unhealthy habits, and recognizing that you need support on your wellness journey.
That's why we believe so strongly in the concierge model of medicine: it allows our physicians the time to accompany patients on their wellness journeys throughout their lives. Not only that, but our memberships include unlimited health coaching, too. So you have a physician and a health coach who'll always have your back.
Bottom line: Your genes have less influence over longevity than you might think. And while genetic testing does have its place, consider it as simply an additional tool in your doctor's toolbox rather than a magic wand.
Curious to learn more about the basics of genetics testing and the PartnerMD approach? Get our free guide.