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What Is Epigenetics?

Epigenetics refers to how things like diet, physical activity, and stress levels can change not only our own health, but that of our children, grandchildren, and other descendants.

What Happens in Epigenetics?

Genes are sections of DNA that code for things like what we look like, what illnesses we’re more likely to have, and whether we are born male or female. Epigenetic changes affect what genes are turned on and off. Epigenetic changes don’t change the DNA code, just what genes are turned on and off. These changes can be passed down in families.

What Causes Epigenetic Changes?

Researchers are looking at epigenetic changes and how they affect someone’s own health and that of their descendants. 

For example, epigenetic changes:

Can Happen Because of:Leading to:
physical activitya lower risk of some types of cancer
long-lasting emotional stressmood problems later in life
not getting enough to eat early in lifeobesity later in life
being overweight or having diabetes during pregnancyhaving a baby who is overweight or more likely to get diabetes later in life
exposure to chemicals used in some pesticides, plastics, flame retardants, and cosmeticsan increased risk of cancer
smokingan increased risk of asthma and lung cancer

All these epigenetic changes and their health effects may be passed to future generations.

The Future of Epigenetics and Health Care

As they learn more, researchers have started developing medicines that can target some epigenetic changes. They’re also finding changes linked to illnesses. Someday, health care providers might be able to do tests to look for these changes to diagnose the conditions.

What Else Should I Know?

Epigenetics shows that how we take care of our bodies affects not only us, but our descendants too. To give your children, grandchildren, and generations beyond a gift toward their health, eat a balanced diet, maintain a healthy weight, manage your stress, and don’t smoke.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date Reviewed: Feb 2, 2022

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