When it is said that someone has good genes, it usually means that they are fortunate to have inherited, rather than earned, a positive attribute, such as straight teeth, impressive height or exceptional intelligence. While this is still true on many counts, we’re now discovering that lifestyle choices—both healthy and otherwise—have a greater effect on DNA than formerly believed. In this edition of our Doctor’s Office series, Dr. Charlene DeHaven, a specialist in anti-aging medicine and clinical director of iS Clinical, explains epigenetics and why you may want to think twice about skipping your workout, cancelling your social plans and the skin care products you use.
The discovery of DNA, the hereditary material that determines our genetic characteristics, had such a wide-reaching effect on both science and the world at large that nearly everyone—scientist and layperson alike—is familiar with the spectacular shape of DNA known as the double helix. In fact, the medical world was so impressed with DNA that for many years it was believed that the DNA in our chromosomes determined our entire health status, from lifespan to personality traits, disease susceptibility and many other factors that identify us as individuals.
However, since DNA’s discovery in 1953, science has gradually begun to question the belief that DNA defines everything about who we are, how we look and how we function—and the findings may surprise you. The new science of epigenetics has revealed that only 35% of a person’s longevity is determined by DNA, and the remaining 65% is determined by epigenetic factors.
What Are Epigenetic Factors?
Epigenetic factors are those qualities that control genes by “talking back” to our DNA, giving it messages of when to turn certain genes—for example, those involved in the determination of your weight or risk factor for disease—on and off. There are many epigenetic factors influencing DNA, including the following:
- Your diet. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, fish and healthier fats, such as olive oil and nuts, discourages disease development and can increase your lifespan.
- Your exercise routine (or lack of one). Regular exercise improves health and longevity, while a lack of physical activity is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and other chronic health conditions.
- The health of your microbiome. The microorganisms that live in our digestive tracts and on our skin play an important role in overall health.
- Your social life. Social interactions and the avoidance of isolation figure very prominently in maintaining both physical and mental health, especially in the later years.
- Your attitude. Persons with an optimistic outlook have improved health outcomes compared to individuals with feelings of hopelessness.
Epigenetics and Skin Care
Let’s look at this in terms of skin care. DNA instructs our skin cells how to act, but our skin also “talks back” to DNA, telling it when to turn genes on or off over time. We know that wearing sunscreen decreases the risks of aging and skin cancer. Aging and cancer development—including skin cancer—is directed via genetic signals.
So, if the choice of wearing sunscreen generates messages that speak to DNA and the DNA then directs the skin cells how to act to lessen skin cancer risk, it makes sense to ask if other skin care products can also make changes to the skin’s DNA. New techniques in lab measurements of gene function have now made it possible to test specific products and determine just how they might affect genes.
What has been discovered is that a high-quality, scientifically based skin care product can affect a multitude of genes in the skin’s DNA, instructing them to perform everything from preventing aging and increasing skin hydration to enhancing immunity and producing collagen and elastin. This proves, at least to some degree, that using carefully chosen skin care products can help beat the aging genes in skin cells and help return the skin’s DNA genetic messages to a more youthful level.