The relationship between race, genetics, and health is very complex and dependent on several other factors. Genetics is related to health and race is related to health, but race and genetics are not related to each other. So how do they all fit together? A person’s genetic makeup biologically sets them up for their health throughout their lifetime, which is known as genetic determinism. Many diseases are carried on genes, and genetics have some control on how effective organs and the immune system will be for someone. Even slight changes in the genetic code can have drastic effects on health, be it good or bad. While having a mutation on one copy of a gene can give a heterozygous phenotype for sickle-cell anemia, which can be beneficial by making someone immune to malaria, having mutations on both copies of the gene can cause full-symptom sickle-cell anemia which can be detrimental to one’s health.
Contrary to popular belief, genes actually have nothing to do with race. Genetically speaking, every human being no matter what color, shape, or size is the exact same. We all have the same set of genes, but each of us has a different combination which makes us unique. The combination of genes that gives people their color and makes up their physical features is what people have defined as race. Race is solely a political entity, created by humans in order to identify groups of common people. While race is dependent on genetics, genetics is independent of race. So how then, do some health issues and trends follow the lines of race if we’re all the same biologically? This is where socioeconomic factors come into play.
A big part of health is affected by where someone lives and their lifestyle, regardless of genetics. People who don’t have access to health care or resources for healthy living will consequently be sicklier than those who do. It happens that many minority races, such as Blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans, live in impoverished areas, and therefore are generally at higher risk for health issues such as hypertension and asthma. Most do not have ready access to healthy foods such as fresh produce, areas for exercise such as parks or gyms, or clean air, and many cannot afford to pay for insurance or medical costs of their impaired health. In addition to lack of resources, they also have additional stress due to racism and economic hardships. So while disease does tend to follow race, it is the social and not the genetic factors that determine these patterns.
The disease I chose is cystic fibrosis. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that causes disease of the lungs and upper respiratory system in addition to the pancreas, liver, and intestines due to salt and water imbalances in the body. Due to this imbalance the body has elevated mucus secretions, which is especially dangerous in the lungs as it can block the airways and prevent breathing. The excess mucus also leads to increased frequency of infections in the sinuses and lungs. Other symptoms include salty tasting skin, persistent coughing, stunted growth and inability to gain weight, and broadening of the fingertips and toes. While there is no cure for CF, there are treatment options such as pharmaceuticals and lifestyle choices that can reduce symptoms.
This disease is most prevalent in the Caucasian population, especially those of Northern European descent. Although the exact reason that of this disparity is unknown, I think it would be reasonable to believe that the “Thrifty-gene” theory could be a potential explanation. As the gene for cystic fibrosis has been around for thousands of years, it must have had some sort of benefit to give people with the gene an edge, for if it was purely harmful it would have been eliminated through natural selection a long time ago. It could be possible that having one copy of the cystic fibrosis gene was beneficial for the Northern Europeans living in a certain environment; maybe it prevented infection similar to how the sickle cell anemia gene can prevent malaria.
American Lung Association. “Cystic Fibrosis (CF).” Last modified in 2010. http://www.lung.org/assets/documents/publications/solddc-chapters/cf.pdf