The hotly contested debate about free will may have been raging in the philosophical community since before the days of Ancient Greece, but it’s made little headway in affecting the perspectives of modern society – we humans simply love to point fingers. And in a culture which is growing increasingly health obsessed, this proclivity often manifests itself as so-called ‘health fascism’. You’ve probably experienced and indulged in it yourself – whether by coughing ostentatiously when you pass by a smoker in the street, or by being tutted at yourself for nibbling a cookie on the train on your way to work, despite your burgeoning waistline.
Simply put, it’s comforting to think that if someone gets sick, they’re responsible for it in some way – not only does it help us feel pleasingly superior, it also allows us to assume that by avoiding certain behaviours, we can circumvent their fate. But new research seems to suggest that, actually, we may all have far less control over our own health outcomes than we are led to believe.
Meet the Epigenetic Clock – A Personalised Ticking Time Bomb
Epigenetics is ‘the study of heritable changes in gene expression (active vs inactive genes) that does not involve changes to the underlying DNA sequence’ . To put this rather more comprehensibly, epigenetics affects how your genes manifest. Influences such as what you eat, how you exercise and intrinsic ageing all affect your gene expression, and this is epigenetics .
The epigenetic clock, however, is a method of determining the age of many human cells and tissues by measuring their DNA methylation . DNA methylation is an epigenetic mark which has the power to turn genes on and off, and can be inherited through cell division . This has been found to offer a more accurate indication of when someone is likely to die than their age – even when risk factors like smoking have been adjusted for .
The discovery of the epigenetic clock provides valuable insight into what causes human ageing, and could even be the first step for discovering a cure. So what’s the catch, and how does this relate to our earlier philosophical meanderings?
Some People Age Faster Than Others – And There Ain’t a Damn Thing They Can Do
Or so it seems. Researchers attempting to determine the epigenetic clocks of 13,000 individuals discovered that approximately 5% of the population age more quickly than the rest of us, with these adults unknowingly living with an 50% increased risk of death at any age – and there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it. In the words of the epigenetic clock’s innovator, Steve Horvath – “You get people who are vegan, sleep 10 hours a day, have a low-stress job, and still end up dying young”.
Of course, epigenetics is a very new field of study, so it doesn’t mean you should chuck your exercise routine and pick up a cigar just yet – but it does highlight the crucial roles our genes play in the ageing process. Clean living isn’t necessarily the garlic ward against death many consider it to be, and how we age, what makes us sick and even what we die of may be even further outside our control than previously thought – meaning it may be time to stop pointing fingers.
The Wellman Clinic is the UK’s first dedicated private men’s health clinic in London, with over 25 years of experience. From health screening to testosterone replacement therapy, we offer tailored, professional medical advice to men in a friendly and confidential environment. Please get in touch to arrange a consultation.