Which affects health more – DNA code or ZIP code?

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By Maggie Fox

Which matters more to your health — nature, or environment? A new study has started to answer that question in a comprehensive way and it shows the scale falls on the side of nurture over nature, at least for young adults.

A team at Harvard Medical School and the University of Queensland in Australia built what they say is the world’s largest database of twin data, based on health insurance claims covering nearly 45 million people. Twins share much of their genetic code and sometimes share the same environment, so they are useful for studying the impact genetics has on health, behavior and other outcomes.

The study, published in the journal Nature Genetics, doesn’t have any big surprises. Overall, for diseases and conditions that hit people by early adulthood, genes account for about 40 percent of the variations from one person to another. Environment — broadly, climate, pollution, and socioeconomic status — accounts for most of the rest. “Environment” usually also includes behavior such as diet and lifestyle.

Genetics had the largest influence on early-in-life eye diseases and on cognitive, or learning, disorders. Environment was the clearest factor in morbid obesity and, unsurprisingly, on infections such as Lyme disease, which is spread by ticks. It was also, to no one’s surprise, the biggest factor in lead poisoning.


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