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How genetics, technology, community and providers can help people build healthier lifestyles

Buying into healthy ideals is one thing, but health promotion is essential if people are to make meaningful lifestyle changes.

Innovations and early adopters are creating processes that promise to improve uptake of healthy lifestyle choices — and DNA health testing has a key role to play.

Partly because of the world’s growing middle class, we are seeing a worldwide increase in lifestyle-related diseases such as cancer. This is putting a huge strain on local health care systems, with people living longer and needing more expensive and longer-term treatment. We need to move away from reactive, demand-driven health care systems to preventative, need-driven health care systems — and DNA testing can play a role in delivering this.

The challenges

While prevention and early intervention strategies can make a difference, one of the industry’s key challenges is to motivate and help people to modify their behaviour and to ensure that new behaviours stick. Forty per cent of premature deaths are the result of individual behaviour, with obesity and smoking leading the way.

Despite ample evidence of the dangers of smoking, obesity, overuse of alcohol and sedentary lifestyles, people around the world continue making poor choices.


The growing global obesity epidemic is a major issue and has been driven by environmental and societal changes that promote overeating and sedentary behaviour. There is a genetic contribution to obesity, body size and shape. Recognising the contribution that genetics and satiety have on obesity and weight gain highlights the damaging effects of our environment, which promotes consumption of high-calorie foods.

Research has shown that individuals who have never smoked, who consume alcohol in moderation, who follow a healthy diet and who get adequate exercise live an average of 11 to 14 years longer than those who do the opposite in all four areas.

How to support healthier lifestyles

While individuals must ultimately make the decision to become healthier, not everyone realises this nor can they alter their behaviour without support. A combination of education programmes and early intervention strategies can help to encourage an active lifestyle and a healthy diet.

To be effective, strategies need to be multi-pronged:

  • People are more likely to make positive lifestyle choices to benefit their health if the strategy is personalised
  • Government and health care system initiatives also have an impact
  • Environmental and infrastructure challenges also need to be addressed. For example, access to good nutrition and exercise.

Genetics and health care

Health care payers have already begun aligning prevention and early intervention strategies with advancements in genomics research. In the UK, genetics research facility UK Biobank has collected information from 100,000 human genomes from approximately 75,000 volunteer individuals. Using a vast amount of this data, researchers examined the relationship between genetic information and various outcomes — whether people develop diseases. It is now understood that genetics can only help predict health outcomes to an extent.

However, it is only when this information is combined with a person’s lifestyle choices and physical condition that medicine can begin to more fully map out the causes of disease and determine how to treat people, such as choosing the drugs or behavioural recommendations best suited to the individual to improve their health.

Read more about Aetna International’s DNA health testing

Personalised care for populations

In October 2018, the NHS in the UK launched a new Genomic Medicine Service and began implementing genetic testing for rare disease markers to support the delivery of more personalised, effective medical care. Iceland, Estonia and the United Arab Emirates are set to follow suit.

The influence of family and social circles

The long-term health prospects of individuals are also influenced by social support.

  • Negative: a lack of social support causes 162,000 deaths in the United States
  • Positive: the presence of constructive support has been proven to help people make better lifestyle decisions.

“For those who are motivated to change, the presence of social support and access to practical advice can improve health outcomes,” says Dr Meg Arroll, Chartered Psychologist, Chartered Scientist, Director, Simply Research. Author of The Shrinkology Solution.

Families play a fundamental role in guiding health decisions, as is the case in so many other areas of human development. It is in our families that we learn what to eat and how (or whether) to exercise. Adolescents whose parents or siblings use tobacco are more likely to pick up the habit. (Family distress is an even stronger predictor of smoking.) And spousal involvement significantly improves long-term results when a person who has never cooked for himself needs to change his diet.

Today, many families are fractured, and many individuals don’t have tight networks of friends. In industrialised countries, extended families are increasingly separated by many kilometres and even oceans, and it’s becoming more and more common for people to live alone.

The role of insurance partners in communities

The need for a supportive community is an especially significant factor for expatriates and the globally mobile. These people often are removed from their traditional friends, family and community support groups. Expats and the globally mobile typically worry more about major health issues (e.g., cancer) and rare catastrophes than the day-to-day decisions that can ensure good health.

Aetna International DNA Infographic Bar Chart Survey on Health Responsibility Aetna International DNA Infographic Bar Chart Survey on Health Responsibility

Unfortunately, many people are never motivated to take the first step toward better health. Sixty per cent of smokers don’t try to quit within a given year, while 30 per cent of individuals have no intention to exercise. Depending on which expert you consult, these people are either experiencing 'amotivation' or are in a 'pre-contemplative' state. This could be due to low self-confidence, low outcome expectations or a belief that the required effort is not worthwhile.

Aetna International DNA Infographic Showing Bar Chart on Smoking and Exercising Aetna International DNA Infographic Showing Bar Chart on Smoking and Exercising

However, the UK’s NHS reports a reduction in smoking and related conditions that it attributes to the government’s public policies. An advertising campaign that targeted teens with negative messaging and graphic imagery appeared to produce positive results.

Learn more about smoking and smoking in our Fit For Duty podcast episode below.

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