Research highlights the impact of genes and environment on human health

The Healthy Nevada Project® has discovered links between genetics, obesity, and childhood trauma, connecting socioeconomic health factors, genetics, and disease. Participants with particular genetic features and who have experienced childhood traumas are more likely to develop adult obesity, according to the study that was published in the journal Frontiers in Genetics.

Research highlights the impact of genes and environment on human health
The Healthy Nevada Project® combines genetic, environmental, social, and clinical data to address individual and community health needs with the goal of improving health across the state and the nation. Image Credit: Desert Research Institute.

The Healthy Nevada Project®, the nation’s first community-based, population health study, was started in 2016 by DRI and Renown Health and presently includes over 60,000 participants. The project is a partnership with Helix, a personal genomics firm, and it combines genetic, environmental, social, and therapeutic data to address individual and community health issues to enhance health throughout the state and country.

The new research focuses on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic and dangerous experiences that children experience before they become 18. A mental health survey was completed by over 16,000 participants in the Healthy Nevada Project®, and more than 65% of those who responded said they had experienced an ACE. The genetic composition and clinical Body Mass Index (BMI) values of these 16,000 subjects were compared.

Study participants who had one or more forms of ACE were 1.5 times more likely to become obese adults, according to the conclusions of the research team. Those who had four or more ACEs were more than twice as likely to develop severe obesity.

Understanding that Adverse Childhood Experiences, like abuse, poverty, food insecurity, and poor relationships with primary caregivers increase a person’s risk for obesity but also interact with your genetics—are key to understanding how we might provide earlier interventions, help reduce health disparities, and create a Healthier Nevada for all.”

Tony Slonim MD, DrPH, President and CEO, Renown Health

Slonim, the CEO of Renown Health in Reno, Nevada, is the country’s first quadruple-board-certified doctor, having certifications in adult critical care, internal medicine, pediatric critical care, and pediatrics, as well as a Doctorate in Public Health.

Our analysis showed a steady increase in BMI for each ACE a person experienced, which indicates a very strong and significant association between the number of adverse childhood experiences and adult obesity. More importantly, participants’ BMI reacted even more strongly to the occurrence of ACEs when paired with certain mutations in several genes, one of which is strongly associated with schizophrenia.”

Karen Schlauch PhD, Study Lead Author, Desert Research Institute

Joseph Grzymski PhD, Principal Investigator of Healthy Nevada Project®, Desert Research Institute, and Renown Health added, “We know that genetics affect disease in the Healthy Nevada Project® and now we are recognizing that ACEs also affect disease.”

Joseph Grzymski adds, “Our new study shows that the combination of genes and environmental factors like ACEs, as well as many social determinants of health, can lead to more serious health outcomes than either variable alone. More broadly, this new work emphasizes how important it is for population genetic studies to consider the impact of social determinants on health outcomes.”

The researchers suggest that clinical physicians should be aware of the significant influence that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have on health during childhood and adulthood. The researchers anticipate that the findings of this study would inspire doctors and nurses to do basic ACE screens and to consider a patient’s social environment and history, as well as genetics when formulating treatment strategies to improve patient health.

About 25.6% of Washoe County youth are overweight or obese, according to the 2019 Youth Behavior Risk Survey (YRBS). Obesity in children and adolescents is a severe health hazard. Fat children and adolescents are more likely to become obese as adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Max J. Coppes MD, PhD, MBA, FAAP, Physician in Chief of Renown Children’s Hospital and Nell J Redfield Chair of Pediatrics at the University of Nevada Reno School of Medicine noted, “Obese and overweight children and adolescents are at risk for multiple health problems during their youth, which is likely to be more severe as adults.

Obese and overweight youth are more likely to have risk factors associated with cardiovascular diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and type 2 diabetes. Losing weight, in addition to a healthy diet, helps to prevent and control multiple chronic diseases and improves quality of life for a lifetime,” added Max J. Coppes.

We’d like to thank all of the Healthy Nevada Project® participants who provided information to make our work possible. Our research illustrates that it’s not just genetics that cause disease, but that our environment and life experiences interact with our genes to impact our health in ways that we are only beginning to understand.”

Robert Read M.S, Desert Research Institute

Journal reference:

Schlauch, K. A., et al. (2022) The Impact of ACEs on BMI: An Investigation of the Genotype-Environment Effects of BMI. Frontiers in Genetics.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of AZoLifeSciences.
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