Genes Not Destiny When It Comes to Heart Disease
Dr. Hegele's work is unraveling the nature vs. nurture debate that has intrigued scientists for years. He says that for about 5 percent of patients, the effect of genetics is so strong there is little they can do, but that 95 percent of us can override our genes by following a healthy lifestyle.
"Even if you've been dealt a bad hand of genes, it's not a life sentence for most people," says Dr. Hegele, director of the Martha G. Blackburn Cardiovascular Genetics Laboratory at Robarts Research Institute. "Simple actions -- basic things like smoking cessation, following a healthy diet, and physical activity -- are the key to overturning genetic predisposition."
Dr. Hegele tracks down unique gene mutations that predispose people to heart disease risk factors such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes in his lipid clinic patients in London, Ontario. He takes a particular interest in uncovering the genetic profiles of ethnic groups considered at higher risk to heart disease, such as Canada's Aboriginal populations.
"It's ironic that it took high tech findings from the Human Genome Project to point us to the simple low-tech solution of following the advice moms have been giving for years," he says. Dr. Hegele adds that while lifestyle is key, drug treatments can be very important for some. "The drugs of tomorrow will come from a genetic understanding of the pathways that contribute to heart disease and stroke."