The Cost of Modern Society – a bill spanning generations

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So, you exercised today? Good. You followed your low fat, low carb diet? Good.  Your parents lived in New York City? Bad. Very bad.

Health, it seems, has more to do with what stuff you were exposed to while being born than previously thought, according to Bette Hileman from Scientific American. Diseases and disorders, such as diabetes, cancer, depression, and even obesity are much more likely to occur after exposure to gene altering substances. What are these substances? Chemicals we are all exposed to daily, as much a part of our society as we are, that reside in our food, our water, our air. Children in New York City exposed yet unborn and at a young age to contaminants in the air (common air pollutants from traffic) were much more likely to develop asthma than those who were not. This statistic is staggering: in NYC, a full 25% of children are born asthmatic. What’s more, these effects are compounded by the fact that they persist and accumulate from generation to generation. In other words, chemicals your grandmother was exposed to while pregnant with your mom could still affect you severely. That means that all that bad stuff government agencies have been banning over the years could still be affecting us today. And it certainly helps explain the rapid increases in health problems worldwide.

This field of study, relatively new, was addressed last week by dozens of researchers from National Academies last week. Called epigenetics, it addresses the possibility of certain chemicals altering our genes into being expressed at the wrong times, or switched off when they should be on. Relief may be found in that testing for epigenetic effects won’t be much different from current chemical testing. According to Professor William Farland from Colorado State University, all that is needed are new “endpoints” to current tests. The way these chemicals work to alter our genes is their ability to enable methyl groups that attack the genes, turning them on or off inappropriately, and/or uncoiling parts of the chromosome, also expressing genes at the wrong times.

There is a good side to epigenetics, and studying these gene-altering substances. By determining which chemicals affect us and how, we may not only be able to remove them from use, but also find new ways to prevent or treat diseases, psychological conditions, even genetic disorders. Successful clinical trials for epigenetic treatment of certain cancers have already been successful, according to Professor Karl Kelsey from Brown University. Instead of killing cells, they change how the cancerous cells act, essentially changing their cancerous nature.

There is still much that is not known about this area, but that is not seen as much of a setback for scientists – the National Toxicology Program is already starting to incorporate epigenetic testing into their programs. As for how this affects you, next time you go to the doctor for a health complication, it may be far more important what you were exposed to when you were born, instead of what you are eating now. Who knows, maybe it’s your mother’s fault.

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