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DNA tests revealing disease risk make people live healthier lives

The secret to losing weight and quitting smoking might not be in a diet or self-help book, but instead, be written in our DNA as research shows learning your genetic risk of disease can help people change for the better.

A study by Finnish researchers has found that telling people how their genes might increase the risk of a heart attack or stroke in the next 10 years encouraged 90 percent to adopt healthier habits.

While these risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD) do not guarantee any one individual will be affected, being shown this risk appears to provide better motivation to change than traditional risks like weight and cholesterol.

In the 18 month trial, 17 percent of the participating smokers successfully quit, compared to four percent in the general population, and 13.7 percent had lost weight and kept it off.

“As many as 40 percent of participants with a high risk of CVD were smokers at the start of the study, so these results are encouraging,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. Elisabeth Widen from the University of Helsinki.

She said the genetic information was “particularly motivating”, adding: “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.”

Commercial genetic testing is already becoming more common, with many companies offering to tell you about your genetic ancestry or disease risks.

In Estonia the government is trialling genetic testing 100,000 citizens, just under 10 percent of its population, to offer the health and lifestyle advice and the Finnish programme shows this can be powerful in conjunction with medical support.

The study, which has yet to be published but is being presented at the European Society of Human Genetics annual meeting on Saturday, recruited 7,328 participants as from theGeneRISK study.

Dr. Widen and her team created a web tool that compares their genomic information with 49,000 genetic markers already known to be associated with the disease as well as lifestyle risk factors.

The tool, KardioKompass, then delivers a risk score of their chances of developing coronary heart disease. This is where fatty material builds up on the arteries that feed blood to the heart, which can cause angina or heart attacks.

Anyone with an elevated risk was advised to go to a doctor and discuss ways to reduce it. The results also show those with the highest risk, a heart attack chance of 10 percent or more were twice as likely to have made a health-helping change in the 18 month period.

“Since they have managed to maintain these changes for one-and-a-half years, we expect them to persist,” Dr. Widen said, and they now believe this could be a template for the wider use of disease risk screening in public health.

Professor Joris Veltman, Director of the Institute of Genetic Medicine at Newcastle University said it was “impressive” to see this sort of information being used so effectively.

 While this field is set to grow he said further work would be needed to see whether the opposite effect when people learned they had lower chances of disease.

“Clearly in the population, there will also be many people with a relatively lower genetic risk of developing common diseases,” he said.

 “I do wonder what would happen if these people are informed about this; would they start showing an unhealthier lifestyle?”

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