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Are Your Genes Your Destiny?


Are you a particularly good manager in your job? Are you kind of proud of your ability to take risks that other people are afraid to take?

On a less positive side, do you wonder why your brother was able to quit smoking fairly easily, yet you have struggled with it more than once and still haven't been successful? Do you have trouble losing weight? Suffer from depression?

More and more research is showing that our DNA-our genetic makeup-affects many aspects of our personality and health, the ones we'd like to take credit for and the ones we aren't so proud of. If you have strong artistic talent, is it because of a unique and special ability you've taken the time to develop, or is it only because a talent for art is in your genes?

Scientists are finding more and more that multitudes of very specific genes are likely to be at least partially responsible for an extremely wide variety of illnesses, conditions and abilities, including:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Anorexia
  • Autism
  • Athletic ability
  • Musical ability
  • Risk-taking behavior
  • A likelihood of gaining weight
  • A tendency to live for a long time
  • A tendency to become addicted to cocaine
  • Addiction to nicotine

    But when you think about it, is any of this a surprise? Haven't we always noticed traits that are passed on from one generation to another? "She's stubborn, just like her father," you might say. "He gets his artistic ability from his aunt." "Most people in my family are chubby."

    The difference is that now the reasons for these traits have genetic names, like arginine vasopressin 1A receptor (AVPR1A), serotonin transporter (SLC6A4) or dopamine transmitter 1 (DAT1). Additionally, sometimes genes interact with one another to create behaviors and conditions that would be different if the genes did not interact at all.

    But let's not forget environmental factors

    If you grow up with parents who encouraged you to take dance lessons, your genetic tendency to do well in dance will have more of a chance to flourish. If your school offered excellent art classes, your artistic talent may have gotten just the spark it needed to turn into a full-fledged lifetime gift. Yet if you have a talent but don't have the discipline to take it as far as possible, the gene itself probably won't be enough to propel you to a high level.

    On the other hand, if you have a genetic disposition to become addicted to alcohol, but your parents or your religion frown on the use of alcohol, your "addiction gene" may never become activated. And if you're involved in a fatal car accident, it won't matter whether you have a gene for longevity or not.

    In other words, it's impossible to pinpoint accomplishment and achievement or disappointment and failure on any one thing-a gene, a nurturing environment, etc.

    Who's responsible-your genes or you?

    In many ways, knowing your genetic makeup can actually help you counteract any negative tendencies you might have. If, since you were a child, you've seen members of your family have problems with alcohol, there's a good chance you have a gene that predisposes you to alcoholism.

    You can now use that knowledge to your advantage. You can avoid drinking altogether. If that seems too difficult (after all, maybe you don't have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism), perhaps you can allow yourself to drink just a little bit and see how that goes. If you begin to notice that you have a problem, you can rest assured that there's no shame in this, and address the problem early.

    Similarly, if you're a parent, you already have a good idea of what's in your child's genes. If you know about problematic genetic conditions, you can talk with your child's pediatrician or other health professional about ways to address possible problems before they even begin. Prevention is almost always easier than the cure.

    Knowledge of genetics can relieve a burden

    It's entirely possible that as society begins to accept that genes play a large role in the way they influence various aspects of our lives, individuals may begin to feel less of a stigma about imperfections. People who are extremely overweight may feel less shame about it, for example. So when you don't start out feeling as though you should be embarrassed or ashamed, you're starting out stronger, and possibly better able to address your problem head-on.

    Only you can control the way you respond…

    You can't always control the things that are going on around you, but you can control how you respond to them. If someone reacts in anger to something you do, you can lose your temper and embarrass yourself, or you can keep your cool and respond with dignity.

    In a way, you can use the same attitude when it comes to genetics. You can't control the genetic cards you have been dealt, but you can control the way you live your life in response to them. You can choose to live a healthy lifestyle if you have heart disease in your family-or cancer, or any other condition. You can choose to try again to quit smoking, even if you have a genetic predisposition to become addicted to nicotine, because it doesn't mean you can't quit, it just means it's harder for you.

    So go ahead and be proud of your accomplishments and talents. Nurture the positive things, and learn how to address the challenges of the more difficult genetic traits you have. Make choices to live your life to your fullest potential, despite the genetic difficulties you may face. That's something to be proud of, no question. No matter what your genetics are.

    The New York Times, "That Wild Streak? Maybe It Runs in the Family," Molecular Psychiatry, 6 June 2006; Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences of the United States of America, 21 March 2006, 18 April
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