The Genetics of Skin

ZEE JLF@The British Library

Sharad Paul introduced by Nayanika Mahtani

TAKING up tango could help in the battle against dementia, according to evolutionary biologist and skin cancer expert Sharad Paul.
The doctor and author of The Genetics of Health and Skin: A Biography, said that dance may be a useful way of keeping the illness at bay. He noted that a recent study found that tango came out particularly well because “whilst it’s fundamentally balancing and grasping, it has the added advantage that you have a partner.”
Dr Paul told a packed gathering at the British Library that different kinds of dance have different benefits, so for example, Celtic dance – a solo form popularised by the River Dance troupe in Ireland – was good for health in other ways than tango.
He observed that it was difficult for people to know what to believe about health, with all the conflicting research being published. “For the public it’s confusing: you may read a study that says one day coffee is good for you, another day it’s bad for you. The same for alcohol.”

Similarly, some people are able to consume certain types of food such as salt or coffee with little ill effect, but it will have an impact on others. Some foods put some people at risk of an increase in heart disease, but reduce that risk for others.

Dr Paul said that this was because we each “put our individual gene types into the mix,” and so what we eat should be in alignment with our own genetic make-up.
At the same time, he reassured the audience that genes “are a blueprint, but not a destiny. You can turn them on and off,” and specific foods can help with that.

He described a study he was involved in with young people in their 20s and 30s that suggested increased Vitamin C intake could help them keep off the pounds 20 or 30 years down the line. “We know that you can eat certain foods (to) make you fitter and healthier – they turn on the good genes.” For example, eating “an orange a day could keep the doctor away.”
In terms of Vitamin D, Dr Paul said many people suffered a deficiency because they are so worried about getting a tan or skin cancer. He explained that to get enough Vitamin D we need to expose 20 per cent of our bodies to the sun for about 20 minutes daily: “that’s a T-shirt and shorts” but in reality “most people just expose their hands.” He advised people to have a blood test if they plan to take supplements, but they are not necessary if they are eating Vitamin D rich foods instead.
Reflecting on our longer lives, Dr Paul noted that “living longer is not the same as living well. I’m been a doctor for 30 years. I’ve never lost a day’s work due to illness. I like to think I practice what I preach.” Living well is also about having fun, doing different exercises such as dancing to combat dementia and tai chi for balance.

Although we enjoy longer lives due to fewer infections and better water, environmental issues could affect health in the future, Dr Paul predicted. The more pollution there is, “the more toxins are going into the system.” He advised people to take control of “their internal environment” but be aware of the external environment too.

– By Julia Gregory

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