What DNA Expression Means for Quality of Life

The study of epigenetics plays a fundamental role in learning more about human aging and quality of life. Clinical nurse educator Jessica Brown puts it this way: “Epigenetics is the study of how the expression of DNA can be changed without changing the structure of DNA itself.”

Learning more about this exciting body of research might enable us to take control of our own longevity. Here’s how epigenetics relates to disease and aging with further info on how we can alter these factors to help us live longer, healthier lives.

How Do Environments Influence Our Genes?

Epigenetics studies changes in human gene activity and how those changes are influenced by environmental factors.

As explained by science writer and broadcaster Dr. Kat Arney, our surroundings and environments are in a constant state of interplay with our genes. For example, our bodies switch on the genes that create digestion enzymes after we eat a big meal. Likewise, after spending too much time in the sun, activated genes contribute to sunburn.

Digging a bit deeper, Bailey Kirkpatrick, a science writer with a background in epigenetics, points to a study aimed at determining whether DNA methylation (a process in which DNA activity changes while the sequence stays the same) of protein kinase Mζ (PKMZ) is connected to aging-related memory loss (PKMZ being an important molecule in influencing long-term memory). He notes that when rats in this study were exposed to more enriched environments (larger cages, spinning wheels, etc.), the hypermethylation of PKMZ was reversed. In other words, a more stimulating environment changed DNA expression in favor of decreased memory loss.

Epigenetic research is also proving key in dispelling common myths surrounding human behavior and the development of illness. For example, there is a common belief that some people are predisposed to conditions, diseases and addictions based on their genetic heritage. Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating, challenges this idea. He says it is actually epigenetic factors (aspects of a person’s environment and lifestyle) that cause certain inherited genes to express themselves. By living healthier lifestyles, David believes people can directly control their ability to live longer—regardless of inheritance.

If epigenetic configurations are primarily influenced by environmental factors rather than inheritance, as David suggests, epigenetic information may not always be passed down through generations. Jonathan Shaw, managing editor at Harvard Magazine, references a number of studies to prove this point. He notes that while a mother can pass on genetic traits to her offspring by exposing the baby to unhealthy or negative factors—like smoking—while the baby is in the womb environment, this is not an instance of transgenerational epigenetic inheritance. Rather, these passed-on epigenetic traits in the offspring can be ascribed to “in-utero exposures or other mechanisms.” In other words, the environment—not the mother’s epigenome—caused the traits to appear in the offspring.

Bowl of yogurt, acai, berries, mango, and granola

Can Lifestyle Changes Control These Genetic Effects?

Epigenetics looks at how chromosomes can be influenced by reversible chemical modifications. As Dr. Cath Ennis, author of Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide, points out, smoking cigarettes and exercising are examples of environmental factors that influence our chromosomes and determine how genes are activated.

Although epigenetics research is vast and still being explored, it shows that certain lifestyle changes may improve the outcomes of certain illnesses and conditions.

Nutrition

Nutrition and diet are some of the most important factors influencing human epigenetics. Dentist and author Steven Lin notes that honey bees are similar to humans in that exposure to good nutrition early on can positively affect development on an ongoing basis. Similarly, early human exposure to nutrients in breast milk may influence DNA changes that affect long-term quality of life. Specifically, breastfeeding longer exposes a child to “bioactive components such as bacterial populations and immunological cells” that may lead to better brain development, a stronger immune system and a lower risk of diseases such as obesity.

Another study found that tea is associated with epigenetic changes in women. Health and science writer Amanda MacMillan explains the results: "Tea drinking for women was associated with epigenetic changes in 28 different gene regions known to interact with cancer or estrogen metabolism."

Exercise

Exercise has long been associated with an improved mental and physical state, including longevity. Studies show that exercise can also affect epigenetics.

Be Brain Fit co-founder Deane Alban states that in addition to being great for one’s overall health, “physical exercise can positively affect gene expression.” She cites a recent study of active versus sedentary elderly mice, the results of which showed that 117 genes were expressed differently in the mice that exercised regularly than in those that remained sedentary.

Exercise has also been proven to reduce the effects of COPD—or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is an increasingly widespread condition that decreases a person’s airflow and ability to breathe properly. It’s caused by an inflammatory reaction in the lungs, usually onset by smoking or air pollution exposure. By 2030, the World Health Organization has predicted that it will be the third leading cause of death across the globe.

Fortunately, according to research cited by Medical News Bulletin, exercise could possibly improve recovery and overall quality of life in patients suffering from COPD. In a study on patients with COPD, repeated exercise routines correlated with gene expression variations that reduced the inflammatory responses associated with COPD.

Caucasian woman toe touch stretch in a sunny park

Sleep

Sleep is another factor that could possibly affect epigenetics. In a study cited by pharma and healthcare executive Ben Locwin, sleep changes were shown to affect DNA methylation. Specifically, one night of sleep deprivation caused changes in the fat and muscle genome. While this was an extremely small sample size, findings still suggest that long-term sleep deprivation could have lasting effects on our ability to maintain a healthy weight.

Mental Health

Depression, anxiety, negativity, happiness and other mental health factors are also correlated with epigenetic changes. Meditation—and its ability to improve mood and mindset— is currently playing an important role in research on epigenetic factors and mental health.

As one study from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health discovered, “one day of intense mindfulness by experienced meditators led to biological changes including expression of certain genes that play roles in inflammation and pain.”

The study also showed that the group that meditated experienced better recovery in response to stress. These findings reveal that an improved mental state may have lasting effects on molecular and genetic changes that influence chronic pain and inflammation.

Want to Take Control of How Your Body Ages?

The exact link between epigenetics and aging is still uncertain. However, research suggests that certain environmental factors could decrease the negative effects of aging. VitaYears™ Anti-Aging Multivitamin provides nutritional antioxidants and anti-inflammatories to help your body fight negative epigenetic changes, allowing you to live a longer, healthier life. Try VitaYears™ today and start experiencing a more vital you.

images by: rido/©123RF Stock Photo, Jannis BrandtPete Nowicki