Knowing Genetic Risk for Disease Has Beneficial Impact on People's Lifestyle

A pioneering study shows that giving personal genomic information to individuals can have a long-term beneficial effect on their lifestyles. (Credit: Pixabay)

A large study has found that knowing your genetic risk for various diseases makes people switch to healthier lifestyles, and stick to them. 

Consumer DNA companies such as 23andMe already offer advice on beneficial lifestyle changes after screening costumers’ DNA for gene variants linked with disease. The Estonian government has offered a similar service that provides free DNA-based lifestyle advice for 100,000 of its citizens. Dubai recently announced plans to sequence the DNA of its entire population, in a bid to improve the health of its 3 million residents. And in the US, The Healthy Nevada Project is planning to sequence the DNA of 40,000 Nevadans.

But no one has so far shown that such advice is enough to convince people to make real and lasting changes to their lifestyle. 

In a study conducted by Dr. Elisabeth Widen and her team at the Institute for Molecular Medicine at the University of Helsinki, researchers found that providing information on the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)  based on a person’s genome, and traditional risk factors inspired changes for the better in areas such as weight loss and smoking cessation. 

The researchers developed a web-based tool that allows patients and doctors to see and manage genomic information based on 49,000 disease-associated genetic variants and lifestyle-associated risk factors. 

“The tool combines risk information based on traditional risk factors such as age, sex, cholesterol levels and blood levels with a polygenic risk score,” Dr. Widen explained at the 2018 annual conference of the European Society of Human Genetics (ESHG). “Where a patient’s overall disease risk was elevated, [the tool] KardiKompassi advised the participant to contact their doctor in order to discuss how to best reduce it”.


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When reassessed 18 months later, the results were impressive. Compared with a 4% smoking cessation rate in the general population, 17% of smokers in the study had given up, and sustained weight loss had been achieved by 13.7% of participants. 

Overall, risk-reducing behaviour such as weight loss, giving up smoking, or visiting a doctor was 32.4% in those with a predicted CVD risk for more than 10% and 18.4% in those at lower risk. 

“As many as 40% of participants with high risk of CVD were smokers at the start of the study, so these results are encouraging. We believe that giving information on their genetic profile to individuals is particularly motivating, perhaps simply because it is new information,” Dr. Widen said.


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“For example, many of the participants already knew that they had high levels of cholesterol. But it was receiving information on their personal genetic risk that triggered changes,” she continued.

The study participants will be recalled for follow-up studies over the next 20 years and their health status will be closely followed, the researchers said. They believe that those who have already made lifestyle changes are likely to continue them. 

“Since they have managed to maintain these changes for 1.5 years, we expect them to persist,” Dr. Widen said. 


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“We think that our study provides a model for use of [genomic] data in healthcare that can be easily adapted to other diseases, where we believe that it is likelu to be equally valuable,” Dr. Widen concluded. 

“It’s impressive to see how genomic information can be used successfully to promote a healthier lifestyle in people at higher risk of developing heart disease, said Chair of the ESHG conference, Professor Joris Veltman, Director of the Insitute of Genetic Medicine at Newcastle University.

As there will be people with a relatively lower genetic risk of developing common disease, Professor Veltman asked: “I do wonder what would happen if these people are informed about this [their lower risk]; would they start showing an unhealthier lifestyle?”

“This field of predictive genomic medicine is only just emerging, with lots of opportunities for further research,” he added.