Elvis Was Doomed To Die Young

So claimed a newspaper article about a documentary on the DNA of dead celebrities. Don’t tell me you missed it! Elvis, it seems, had “a flaw in his DNA and his early death was his genetic destiny.”

This is at least misleading, if not simply untrue. Elvis’ genes were not his destiny – and neither are yours – but it seems the only message we ever hear is that our genes are in charge of practically everything. Just a couple of days later the same paper tells us, “’Atkins gene’ reveals why obesity can run in family”. And so it continues.

What we’re told – repeatedly – is that it’s the good or bad luck of whatever genes you happened to inherit that determines your health and well-being – how well you will live and and even how long. This notion of genetic destiny seems confirmed when people you know develop a disease that runs in their family, such as diabetes, arthritis or any other condition.

Of course our genes play a part, but what is that part, and how important is it? Is it inevitable that genetic flaws create disease? It can happen, but it’s actually rare. The way I’ve come to understand the power of our genes is through analogies. I’ve come across a few, and here are two versions:

  • You take some good quality seeds, throw half of them on rich soil and water them regularly. The other half you throw onto a toxic trash heap. It’s predictable that the second lot of seeds, if they grow at all, will be poor versions of the first. All of those seeds contained identical genes; the difference was the environment in which they lived. (1)
  • You can think of genes as keys on a piano. On each piano, one or two of the keys are a bit out of tune, but there’s still a huge range of possibilities as to the tunes those pianos could produce. A classical pianist will make them sound a certain way, which will be very different to how a jazz pianist will play those keys, which will be massively different (I assure you) to how I’d play them. Pretty much the same keys; the real difference is in their action, the way they’re expressed. (2)

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  1. maria@mariamccann.myzen.co.uk'Maria

    I haven’t read the source you’re referring to, Gillian, but I saw a TV programme about Elvis some years ago which claimed that it wasn’t just a question of obesity: his post-mortem showed that he had unusual abdominal organs (to be specific, they were much bigger than usual, even comparing with other obese individuals, and were therefore cramped and caused all sorts of health issues). Of course, his eating habits would have made things worse, but I seem to remember that the conclusion was that even on a healthy diet, he couldn’t have escaped serious problems. I might be misremembering, of course, or the programme might have been inaccurate… and I’m certainly not proclaiming that genes are destiny for most people. What we do matters a lot.

  2. Chancery

    Agree with you completely. This is a real bugbear of mine; it drives me bonkers. I HATE (can’t overstate that) the ‘it’s in your genes’ school of fatalism. I think it does a lot of damage and is a real excuse-all. It’s also deeply depressing, which I can live without. It’s hard enough to master weight control without extra grief.

    The genetic component of any illness is absolutely there. In my case there was a family history of gallstones (I had an aunt with them) and apparently if you have an aunt or a grandmother with gallstones you’re more likely to get them yourself, but that said, what I also had in common with my aunt was a middle-aged spread and a preference for dairy fats that landed us both in trouble. Without that I firmly believe I’d still have my gallbladder. The genetic predisposition was definitely there, in that there were a lot of women a lot fatter than me, eating worse diets, and they didn’t get gallstones, but if I had eaten a healthier diet and kept my weight down I probably wouldn’t have got them either – genetics or no.

    It might not be fair, but you just have to suck it up and remember that you do NOT have to kow-tow to your genes. It’s not fate; and anyone who says it is is lying, plain and simple.

  3. Joanna

    I used to believe I was doomed to be overweight as me and my sister both resemble our grandmother and she had been obese nearly all of her life. I have been overweight for as long as I can remember and once somebody said to me, ”you could never be smaller – just impossible!”
    Well, I most certainly can. I was comforted by my mother (who never had this problem) that it is my genes that makes me overweight and not the food I eat. Since I read your book I became interested in nutrition and I was SHOCKED to find out what is the appropriate amount of food for someone my height and age – about three times less than I actually eat. Both my sister and me were able to change our lifestyle and we both changed the shape of our bodies. Genes have little to do with it! But what an alluring excuse they make at the same time.

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