Health care and medicine is living through a major transformation. We're entering into a new era of medicine where prevention precedes treatment. Now this idea, believe it or not, is quite new. Of course, prevention is always the ideal, but sadly the health care sector has been programmed to curing the problem, rather than erasing the problem before it ever happens. Now, thanks in part to genomic sequencing and all that science has learned and continues to, doctors and health care professionals are moving towards a preventive attitude and passing this type of thinking onto their patients. I've often said that as doctors, we're forced to give disease care versus health care. Focusing on health care, means we focus on prevention from the beginning of life. Here's what I mean.
Genomic Sequencing: Where It All Began
Once upon a time, $3 billion was the magic number that brought the full sequencing of a human genome to life. Today, it has decreased to just a few thousand dollars and continues to become more cost-effective. Genomic sequencing reveals the secrets our genes keep from us. So how is this actually done? Less than a teaspoon of blood or saliva samples are collected from the patient. From there, chemicals are applied to the sample in order to break open the cell membranes and gather the DNA housed inside of them. Sophisticated machines analyze these sequences for about 2-3 months to find what essentially the errors are across the 20,000 genes we all possess.
Mapping Your Genetic Blueprint
Genes are often referred to as the blueprint for life. Here's a simplified lesson in basic genetics; all of your body's cells contain chromosomes or packages of DNA strands. DNA holds the map of your genes. As humans, we have 46 total chromosomes in 23 matched pairs and each pair contains one from our mother and one from our father. This is why family history largely determines your genetic destiny or which conditions you may be at risk for, especially when it comes to cancer. Every cell in your body contains your complete genetic blueprint or a map of your genes.
What genome sequencing has created is further discovery on what actually makes us unique from another individual. Behavioral genes are on the road to being discovered that identify why some people need less sleep, how likely we are to respond to exercise and how good we are at learning and memorizing, to even how confident we are.
So, where does this map lead to?
The Rise of Epigenetics
All this human genome sequencing, what are we to do with it? Enter the field of Epigenetics or the study of how biological traits are affected by environmental factors. This approach touches so many parts of how we live and the habits that go along with that lifestyle. Epigenetics studies gene expression and how the epigenome (chemical compounds that signal genes to operate) and how it influences DNA. We all know half of our genes come from our father and the other half from our mother. Even with this knowledge, many people fail to fully understand their family history. The expression of genes and how they regulate inflammation and immune function are under your control depending on the toxins or nutrients you're putting in your body.
Epigenetics looks at how our lifestyle can not only affect our genetic make-up but can be passed on to our children and grandchildren. Yes, it's true some of your genetic make-up may in fact be a result of some of your ancestor's lifestyle choices.
By looking at inflammatory markers. Inflammation gets to the heart of what many of us are destined to develop, which are chronic diseases. In cancer alone, it has increased from 1 in 3 to 1 in 2 people who will develop the disease worldwide.
Inflammation is often due to consuming processed foods, fast foods, white sugar, white flour and heat damaged oils. These foods turn on numerous genes that promote inflammation causing cancer, heart disease. Inflammation often begins in the gut, destroying gut bacteria that releases inflammatory chemicals that produce inflammation promoting cancer throughout the body.
Simple lifestyle changes can fight this. But Epigenetics discovered this.
Health Care vs. Disease Care
As a doctor, disease care seems to be what health care has transformed into. What few people focus on is preventing these diseases before they ever even happen. Now this ties in many arguments on how we raise our children and the health habits we instill in their lives early on, but regardless of all that, studying our genes closer has sparked a preventive attitude. Existing evidence does show that experience in our early lives are linked to health and behavioral outcomes in the future but the ways in which these experiences make a difference are not yet fully understood. What can we really learn from our genes? Prevention. Prevent what's coming and make those changes now.