Shortly after my son, Alex, was diagnosed with autism, I began to understand that while there may be a genetic fragility that made him more prone to the illness, it was meaningless without the right environmental triggers. I’ve written before about his “perfect storm,” so this idea isn’t new to you. It just came to mind again when I read this week how a poor diet, combined with a genetic propensity, may lead to Alzheimer’s Disease.[i]
Researchers at the University of South Carolina compared the effects of a poor diet (high in cholesterol, unhealthy fat and sugar) on groups of mice that have a gene that is highly associated with the development of Alzheimer’s.
“Part of what the results are saying is that risk doesn’t affect everybody the same, and that’s true for most risk factors….Your genes have a big role in what happens to you, but so does your environment and your modifiable life-style factors. How much you exercise becomes important and what you eat becomes important.”
The mice fed the equivalent of a modern western diet quickly gained weight, became pre-diabetic, and developed the signature brain plaques of Alzheimer’s.
And of course, the modern western diet is also highly associated with a decrease in microbiome diversity.
As I was typing the above, and simultaneously snooping around on the Internet, I came across an article published on Wednesday entitled, “Gut bacteria might one day help slow down aging process.”[ii] Using the laboratory worm, C. elegans, researchers tested thousands of bacterial genes and compounds to see what would happen. The results demonstrated that various bacterial genes and compounds had a huge effect, ranging from increasing the worms’ lifespans to protecting them from tumor growth to preventing the accumulation of amyloid-beta, which make up the plaques in Alzheimer’s.
The good news, of course, is that this means we all have a measure of control – at least to some extent. It’s a little comforting to know that our futures aren’t completely set in stone.