We all know what to do to avoid getting sick during cold and flu season: drink lots of fluids, get plenty of rest and wash your hands frequently. But your habits and hygiene may not be the only factor when you get sick. Your DNA may actually be to blame.
The length of your telomeres, or caps at the end of your DNA, may predict whether or not you are susceptible to getting sick. According to a study published in the Journal of American Medical Association, “telomere length within immune cells seems to be associated with risk of infection by a cold-causing virus for people as young as 22 years” (Huffington Post).
Historically, short telomeres have been associated with aging and age-related diseases. But this new study suggests that telomere length is relatively consistent over a lifetime, and that people with shorter telomeres may be more disease-prone than people with longer telomeres.
What can you do?
If telomeres are part of your DNA, you may think that there’s nothing you can do to lengthen them. But “past research has shown that their length could also be affected by stress” (Huffington Post). Avoiding work-related stress and extreme fears could help you lengthen your telomeres and fight off disease.
And while your DNA may be a factor in whether or not you get sick, it’s still important to follow all the commonsense hygiene rules during cold and flu season. Taking care of yourself and washing your hands often are still your best bets for staying healthy.
Can your genes predict all sicknesses?
How useful is DNA mapping in predicting which diseases a person may be susceptible to in his or her lifetime? Not as useful as you may think. According to the New York Times, “while sequencing the entire DNA of individuals is proving fantastically useful in understanding diseases and finding new treatments, it is not a method that will, for the most part, predict a person’s medical future.”
A study examining the DNA of identical twins identified 24 common diseases, including breast cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and attempted to measure how closely each disease is tied to DNA. What they found was inconclusive. Just because one twin developed the disease did not mean that the other had a higher than average risk of developing the same disease. It became clear that more factors than just DNA were involved.
Dr. Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins said that the twin study “puts limits on what people might expect with this sort of testing” (NYT). The real benefit from DNA sequencing comes with the information it gives us about how disease works, not from predicting who may fall victim to a certain sickness.