Blood (Sweat and Tears) & Saliva— Understanding Behavior Genetics and Biometrics

Why it Matters to Employers, Health Plans and Individuals

By Lara Dodo

It is well established that 5% or more body weight reduction is a clinically significant metric for reducing risk of chronic disease. So why don’t we all just lose weight or mandate weight loss? Because we understand that our lifestyle, our daily choices, and our habits are not that easy to change, even when logically we know that our behaviors are placing us at risk. 

The most effective approach to preventing, slowing, or reversing chronic disease today are programs focused on behavior change—i.e., the underlying choices and daily habits we make around nutrition, exercise, and well-being. Smart preventative treatment involves personalized programs based on genetic testing, nutrition and personal health coaching. This combination has achieved remarkable success both warding off chronic disease before it arrives and slowing and reversing disease where it appears.  

What if simply swabbing your cheek would increase weight loss by 25%?  In an abstract published by the American Society of Human Genetics, 2,297 participants met inclusion criteria and showed 25% higher weight loss than those who did not take a genetic test as well as demonstrated 1.3X higher odds of achieving 5% weight loss. Sign me up!

A common thread in programs that yield sustainable improvements is that they all have a strong behavior change component and many leverage biometrics measures such as waist circumference, blood pressure, cholesterol, triglycerides and blood glucose levels. Out-of-range levels correlate with the onset and progression of chronic diseases such as obesity, hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Chronic diseases are one of healthcare’s greatest problems today with 86% of healthcare costs attributable to chronic disease; 6 in 10 adults in the U.S. have a chronic disease and 4 in 10 have two or more chronic diseases. These are preventable and reversable with a change in lifestyle. Biometrics are not only a gold-standard in identifying individuals at risk of chronic disease but also offer an objective way to evaluate the impact of health coaching programs by analyzing the changes in biometrics over time, e.g., annual screenings. 

Commonly measured biometric statistics include:

  • Waist circumference. A high amount of body fat can lead to weight-related diseases and other health issues. Being overweight or obese brings with it an increased risk for high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, some cancers, mental illness and more.
  • Glucose (blood sugar). Blood sugar, or glucose, is the main sugar found in your blood. It comes from the food you eat, and is your body’s main source of energy. More than 90 percent of people who are prediabetic don’t know it. Learning your blood glucose numbers can potentially help you prevent or delay becoming diabetic, or help you make necessary lifestyle or medical changes to better control your sugars. 
  • Blood pressure. Blood pressure is measured using two numbers: The first number, called systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats. The second number, called diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart rests between beats. High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke. 
  • HDL cholesterol. Cholesterol isn’t all bad. In fact, cholesterol is an essential fat. It provides stability in every cell of your body. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol is the well-behaved “good cholesterol.” If your HDL cholesterol level dips too low (less than 40 mg/dL), that’s a warning sign.
  • Triglycerides. Triglycerides are the main constituents of natural fats and oils, and high concentrations in the blood indicate an elevated risk of stroke. When you eat, your body converts any calories it doesn’t need to use right away into triglycerides. If you regularly eat more calories than you burn, particularly from high-carbohydrate foods, you may have high triglycerides (hypertriglyceridemia). 

Biometrics,in conjunction with genetic testing and other key behavioral measures related to anxiety, depression, resilience, sleep and mood, are the key components used to design customized, whole person health coaching plans which are at the heart of effective habit and behavior change. Results can be significant, which is why habit change programs are being used effectively today, not only by individuals but on a large scale by employers such as Levi Strauss & Co and Canon. 

A full 20 years ago, Johnson & Johnson found it was able to reduce healthcare costs hundreds of dollars annually for each employee by implementing a habit-change wellness program. More recently, a randomized control trial of one program showed savings of up to $1,464 per employee annually. And one business owner testified to the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that his company was able to lower its healthcare costs by about 40 percent, employees’ cost by about 10 percent, and improve the level of care employees receive by implementing voluntary, company-wide wellness initiatives. 

Habit change programs show their efficacy from a bottom-line business perspective by tracking the anticipated clinical improvements that result from healthier daily behaviors that become habits through to the downstream reduction in associated healthcare costs – all while yielding whole person health improvements, physical and emotional.

Broadening the focus from managing chronic disease to preventing, slowing and reversing chronic disease progression with lifestyle interventions, contains costs in ways that help the entire health care eco-system. Most importantly and better still, it helps program participants lead healthier, happier and more productive lives.

Lara Dodo is Chief Growth and Operating Office of Newtopia, Inc., a personalized, whole health platform that helps people create positive lifelong habits, enhancing physical and emotional well-being while cutting healthcare costs.