I am in mourning. My morning ruined by the absence of my usual companion at Saturday breakfast, the Family section of the Guardian. Instead there was a horrible advertising supplement aimed at parents. A real sign of the times I suspect. My favourite newspaper, like all print media, is having a hard time competing with on-line versions…the Guardian’s being free and very good, but not the same as having it on the table along with my toast and marmalade.
Some consolation, but of a different nature, was when Walter pointed out to me the review of Professor Tim Spector’s new book, Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes. As the reviewer Peter Forbes explains, this book is about epigenetics, one of the keys to explaining the mystery of life. What has been known and understood for a while is that personal experience of the environment people find themselves in can change our genes – sometimes permanently, sometimes for the duration of the impinging influence. Apparently London cabbies have ‘the knowledge’ – enhanced regions of the brain that start to recede when they retire (although this does not address an on-going question in my head about what sat-navs are doing to this much prized skill). But what is continuing to puzzle geneticists is that some of these changes can be passed on to offspring and the effect – although it eventually disappears after three or four generations – can have profound consequences. Apparently the people at the Human Genome project, who had assumed that sequencing the genome would be the key to personal health knowledge, have rather embarrassedly come to the conclusion that the genetic component of some multi-factorial diseases is exceptionally low. This does not mean that genetics mean nothing, but it does mean that nurture and environment play a significant part in all our chances of developing the diseases that afflicted and perhaps killed our parents (or genetic progenitors). This is particularly meaningful to me this month as in a few days time I will have reached the birthday that my mother did not live to see. Both she and my father died before they were 65 and both had health problems that I do not have. Both were heavy smokers and I have never smoked a cigarette in my life. Neither of them ever took any exercise and I started as an athlete at school and am a regular gym attender now.
There also may be some meaning here for donor conceived people, many of whom are anxious about the health history of their donor and his or her family. Maybe it’s not so important after all.