Why Environmental Factors More Important Than Genes in Determining Immunity

twinsWhy is it that some people are more prone to getting sick than others? On one side of your office is a person perpetually sniffling, while you haven’t had so much as a headache in two years? Scientists have been trying to determine what is responsible for our immune system’s performance, with most believing it to be either genetics or environmental factors. According to a new study, the environment is starting to trump our genes.

Researchers at Stanford University studied pairs of twins of varying ages, from quite young to very elderly. They wanted to know if people with the same genetic makeup would have the same immune system response to certain things. The results were surprising; younger twins seemed to match up slightly more in terms of their genetic responses, while older twins had quite different immune systems. 

The reason for these results is a simple one: young twins have had little environmental experiences without each other. Elderly twins may have been apart for many years, and therefore have each been exposed to a variety of viruses, mold, and smog. “Experience counts more and more as you get older,” said Mark Davis, director of Stanford’s Institute for Immunity, Transplantation and Infection.

Researchers also found no correlation between genetics and the efficacy of over the counter medication to help treat illness. In many cases, the twins had varying levels of flu-fighting antibodies regardless of age. This is another sign that environmental factors may have more influence on human immune systems. “This just says the environment plays a huge role in shaping what your immune system looks like,” Davis explained.

One thing that the study did not cover were autoimmune diseases, which tend to be heredity. Therefore, those born genetically susceptible to illness should beware of their exposure to viruses or other environmental hazards. “It’s when you get those infections” that may be key to the impact on the immune system, said Dr. Megan Cooper, a pediatric immunologist and rheumatologist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, who wasn’t involved in the study.

As scientists further recognize how immune systems are developed, they may be able to develop individualized treatments for those suffering from illness. The information will provide doctor’s with a better understanding of a patient’s prognosis, therefore being able to more accurately prescribe treatment. It is an exciting time for this research.

So should you go out in a plastic bubble to avoid all of the toxic things in the world? Probably not; just use your common sense and stay active and healthy.

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