Harvard Men's Health Watch

Genes and lifestyle: Are we victims of our own success?

"What a piece of work is a man."

As usual, Shakespeare got it right. At their best, humans appear to have a limitless ability to imagine and create, to innovate and build, to aspire and achieve. As man's dreams in the 20th century became realities, he established a way of life that is beyond the wildest imagination of his grandparents. Yet for all its advantages, life in the information age presents potential perils as well as unparalleled opportunities. Unfortunately, some of those perils contribute to diseases that were rare a few generations ago but approach epidemic proportions today.

A scientist speculates

Writing in the August 2004 American Journal of Medicine, Dr. George P. Chrousos of the National Institutes of Health explains the potential hazards of a mismatch between human genetics and human behavior. At the core is the body's stress response. It involves the brain, especially the hypothalamus, the pituitary (or "master") gland, the sympathetic nervous system, and the adrenal glands. In response to stress, this intricate network pours out several hormones such as cortisol and other glucocorticoids, adrenaline and other sympathomimetic amines, vasopressin, and interleukin 6 and other cytokines that mediate inflammation and immunity.

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