But genes only tell part of the story. The U.S. has been in the grips of an obesity epidemic in recent decades. It's been fueled by inactive lifestyles and too much high-calorie food. That, in turn, has helped bring on a rise in type 2 diabetes.
Exercise and weight control can lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. In one ongoing trial, researchers are testing an intensive lifestyle program that encourages:
- Nutritious low-calorie food choices
- Weight loss
Volunteers in the program have seen dramatic improvements in their A1C levels, a blood test used to check diabetes risk. Blood pressure and cholesterol levels have also improved significantly.
It's Not Too Late to Start
The earlier you adopt a healthy lifestyle, naturally, the better. Lloyd-Jones and his colleagues recently completed a study on heart disease that looked at lifestyle factors in people who were about 25. The researchers checked in with the study participants 20 years later. People who kept a healthy lifestyle into middle age were far less likely than those who didn't to have risk factors such as high cholesterol and poor blood sugar control.
Still, it's never too late to start. People who make healthy changes even as late as their 60s and 70s see dramatic reductions in risk, according to research by Richard S. Rivlin, MD. Rivlin is a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
By exercising and following a healthy diet, older people can lower their risk of both heart disease and osteoporosis, or bone loss. Adults over 65 who already have coronary artery disease can lower the danger of heart attacks by as much as 45%, Rivlin found. A low-calorie diet and regular exercise among older people can cut the risk of cancer nearly in half.
Genes play a role in our health, so it's important to know your family medical history to understand your personal risks. "But for most of the chronic diseases that plague us, from heart disease and stroke to diabetes, lifestyle still trumps genes," says Lloyd-Jones. "Staying healthy is still mostly a matter of the choices we make."