Thursday, July 19, 2012

The genomics of potatoes: couch potatoes!

Here is the latest on your tax money at work.  A study, as intellectually deep as the cushion in your TV room, published in the special physical activity issue of The Lancet that precedes the Olympics, shows the stunning fact that idleness is as dangerous to your health as smoking.  It's not just that every idle person, like every smoker, actually dies (though perhaps in a blissful state in at least the former case) but that the risk of death from diabetes, heart disease and even some cancers is comparable to the excess risk of smoking.  Say the authors,
Strong evidence shows that physical inactivity increases the risk of many adverse health conditions, including major non-communicable diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers, and shortens life expectancy. Because much of the world's population is inactive, this link presents a major public health issue. We aimed to quantify the effect of physical inactivity on these major non-communicable diseases by estimating how much disease could be averted if inactive people were to become active and to estimate gain in life expectancy at the population level.
We're not minimizing the nature of the finding, because results from many studies over many years make it no surprise whatever that exercise is good for your health.  The cure is not to have more and more expensive studies, but....well, to just get off your duff!

Of course, the Pharmas that want you on lifetime meds will argue, perhaps not explicitly, that 'today's lifestyle' puts people at risk of X disease for which they have the preventive pill.

If this is, as the lead author of the paper dramatically says, a pandemic (at least in Britain where the study was done), then we have the makings of the next round of Big GWAS studies.  Another paper in The Lancet addresses ecological factors that might explain why some people are active and some are not, but surely there will soon be a demand by the general public (of epidemiologists and geneticists) to know the genetics of who is is exactly that is vulnerable to this disease (which is likely soon to be named, say, as indolitis, and added to the official list of diseases, thus making it a disease).

For some, we'll surely hear, watching endless sports and mindless programs will do no damage to life expectancy (other than making you brain-dead at a very young age).  We need, absolutely, to know their genotypes and once we do, if they show their genotype diagnosis from 23andMe they'll be allowed to buy a huge-screen TV.  Without a clean bill of genetics, they'll be denied access to Best Buy.   Or, perhaps new TV's will have a slot for you to put in a credit-card size genotype record before you can turn it on, much like some cars have breathalyzer screening before you can start the engine.

Now, we already do know a lot of the genotypes, but until now we didn't know why.  Those are the countless genes associated in existing GWAS studies with diabetes, cancer, heart disease and so on.  We thought this had something to do with the gene networks involved in glucose metabolism or detection of aberrant cell muations that might lead to cancer.  But instead, these genotypes will now have to be studied to see how they interact with sofa postures, and perhaps channel choices (will those who watch sports be at even higher risk than average for an indolitis victim, or will that be somehow protective because sudden-death overtimes stimulate adrenaline release?).

Other potato-consequences you might not realize!
You not might think about it right away, but indolitis actually reduces the risk of many different diseases.  Most cancers, many types of senile dementia, and a host of other diseases will decrease in frequency.  In that sense, being a couch potato protects you against those, while excercise protects you against the diseases mentioned in the Lancet article.  That's because indolence will lead to those latter traits, thus preventing you from dying of the others.  It may be true that those would have got you at a later age, but, hell, we all have to go sometime, so it's your choice of how and when. If you have indolitis, you at least have some information....almost as precise as if it came from a genome company.

Good for business, too
Soon, an epidemiologist from a university near you will be asking for a blood sample and an exact reckoning of your TV-watching habits.  Please cooperate, as this is going to be the mother of all epidemiological studies.

And of course this will be good for anthropology, too (we're happy to say!) because it will allow some of us quickly to get in touch with the NY Times (or Nature or Science) to explain how it may seem that we evolved to be active and hence healthy, but perhaps others will argue that we evolved to sit around the campfire gossiping rather than wasting energy chasing wildebeests or berries too high on the bush to reach.  Whatever our story, we'll surely be searching for evidence of natural selection in the genes that are implicated in indolitis, so we can explain why they're here.

Good for one and all!  So sit back and relax until the stories start appearing....


John R. Vokey said...

Thanks for the laugh!

Ken Weiss said...

Be careful! I'm sure there are studies showing that laughter (and sneezing) constitute real exercise. That puts you at risk of late-onset diseases, though it also relaxes you which reduces other diseases. But it may make you hungry, which will raise your risk.

Hmmm. Maybe just don't laugh too hard. Meanwhile, propose a study of the genes for unreasonable propensity to laugh.

John R. Vokey said...

Stop it!! I almost snorted my coffee. (Oh gawd, I just gave him more material...).

Ken Weiss said...

Coffee snorting is closely related (genetically, that is) to sleep apnea. You should see your doctor....