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Chronic disease and epigenetics

August 1, 2006

Physiological or Health capital has been a research interest of Nobel Laureate Economist Robert Fogel for nearly three decades. Now his research into historical trends in life expectancy and chronic disease is uncovering historical evidence for epigenetics. Today’s New York Times describes his findings in a very interesting and accessible article comparing us to our Civil-war era counterparts.

The most striking part of the article was the description of the chronic health problems suffered by Civil War-era Americans. The article tells the story of Valentin Keller, a tailor in the 1860s, who developed crippling (literally) arthritis and lung disease at 26, and died at 40. Keller’s modern day descendants are in their 50s and 60s without any hint of his health problems.

Genetically, we are nearly identical to our great-great-grandparents. The reason for our discrepancy in health outcomes is usually interpreted as the consequence of modern health care and quality of life.

This explanation does not capture the whole story. Not only do we live longer than our great-great grandparents, we are bigger, stronger, and healthier. We also age slower. Researchers who investigate these trends have found that even the people who survived their early illnesses were much more likely to be afflicted with health problems in their 50s. That a severe illness early in life accelerates aging, and increases the risk for diseases such as heart disease and cancer later in life. This finding reinforces what the <animal studies> have been telling us for years.

This description just screams Epigenetics to me. Environmental insults will have effect gene regulation and expression patterns, compounding health effects over time. This is fits perfectly with the study that showed that identical twins become more and more different epigenetically as they age. This article hints at epigenetics by referencing our favorite <winter famine> but says nothing of the second-generation effects, or epigenetics.

(A quick aside, the overwhelming message here is that people today are healthier by every barometer other than BMI than they were at any other time in history. Is the obesity epidemic an issue to be seriously dealth with – yes. Is it something that is threatening society as we know it – absolutley not. Rant Over)

The take home here is

  1. Be careful with your body – what you do to it now will effect you (and perhaps your children) and that health effects compound. It’s all related.
  2. More research emphasis is needed on the intersection between disease and long-term health. Epigenetically focused epidemiology would be incredibly valuable data.
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