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Genetics And The Blame Game

Just heard a news story that researchers have identified three genes responsible for about 9 percent of  stuttering. In the story, a woman who stuttered as a child and teenager and who now works with other stutterers was nearly in tears at the news. Her clients, she said, would be so happy to learn that their stuttering “wasn’t their fault.”

I’m happy for the stutterers of the world. But this story made me think about so many other things related to our health that we try to find an “out” for, something that makes it not our “fault.” The more we learn about the contribution of genes to human health, the more stories like the stuttering one we’ll hear. The thing is, our genes do not operate in a vacuum. Just because I have a gene or genes that increase my risk of lung cancer doesn’t mean I’ll get it. But add smoking to the mix–an environmental component–and it’s much more likely I’ll develop lung cancer as the environmental stress combined with the genetic mutations turn on or off the underlying biochemical processes that trigger cancer growth.

The same could be said for nearly any condition for which a genetic component has been identified. We know, for instance, that some people are just genetically predestined to be heavy. You see it in their families going back generations. The question is, just how heavy? A genetic predisposition towards obesity is not a get-out-of-jail-free card to hit the all-you-can-eat buffet on a regular basis. Instead, it’s a warning light that I have to be even more vigilant than my peers in terms of exercise and diet, much like someone with a genetic predisposition towards high cholesterol has to limit saturated fat and other cholesterol-creating foods more so than someone without those genes.

In other words, don’t blame the genes. That’s like blaming the computer for crashing when you’re the one who operated it without virus protection, or blaming the car for crashing when you’re the one who drove 30 miles over the speed limit while texting. By all means, learn all you can about your genes–there are even tests you can take at home that will provide information on your risk for  hundreds of genetically-linked conditions–but know that risk is only a word. You still, to a large extent, control your medical destiny.

Your thoughts?

*This blog post was originally published at A Medical Writer's Musings on Medicine and Health Care*

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3 Responses to “Genetics And The Blame Game”

  1. Read says:

    This takes us back to the old nature vs nurture debate which, just as your post alludes, is a false dichotomy. The relationship between genes and externalities is complicated. If you ask a geneticist why someone gets sick, they’ll have a completely different (but equally true) answer than if you ask an anthropologist than if you ask the behavioral economist. The idea that there are multiple truths is a tough one for us to grasp I think. So great post! And thanks for helping bring grey to this black and white world.

  2. Bud Bultman says:

    I see your point, but for those of us who have stutterers in our family, this is helpful in that it lets all those teachers/friends/others know that it was not poor parenting that caused several brothers to stutter. When we know that stuttering runs in our families, we can go to the web site of The Stuttering Foundation and learn what to do when a child in another generation starts to stutter. Teachers, employers, and everyone should know how to converse and help someone who stutters; why don’t you do an article about that?

  3. Bud Bultman says:

    If my grandparents were alive today, they would be happy to read Jane Fraser’s comment “Parents don’t cause stuttering, and this research should lift the burden of guilt from their shoulders” and be assured that their parenting skills did not cause the stuttering in their sons. They would also be happy to know that the Stuttering Foundation helped their sons lead successful lives because of their book “Self Therapy for the Stutterer” and referral of one of the sons to a speech therapist trained to work with stuttering. Thanks to the Stuttering Foundation for supporting Dr. Drayna’s work on discovering genes that cause stuttering!

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