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Fearfulness changes impact of genomic information in overweight women

Everyone has bad days, whether it's the result of a traffic accident, a missed phone call or a rusty nail that requires a tetanus shot. But when those bad days, and the emotions they provoke, precede a visit to the doctor, the results can be unexpected.

New research suggests that fearful patients who received information about the role of genomics in being overweight viewed the information as threatening and were less likely to take steps to improve their health habits than those in a neutral or angry state. The study, by National Institutes of Health (NIH) researchers, was published in an advanced online issue of the Annals of Behavioral Medicine on February 5, 2016.

"People sometimes think they're making healthcare decisions based on the cold hard facts, but we're discovering that emotions play a big role," said Susan Persky, Ph.D., the study's lead author and an associate investigator with the Social and Behavioral Research Branch at the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI), part of NIH.

Many genes likely influence whether people are overweight. What the genes are and how they work isn't yet known, but the role of heredity in weight is estimated to be between 40 and 80 percent, said Dr. Persky, who heads NHGRI's Immersive Virtual Environment Test Unit. Because of this profound impact, she wanted to determine how to communicate information about genomics and weight so that patients are motivated to perform healthy behaviors.

In the study, she asked the 1,126 overweight participants to write for five minutes about situations that made them very angry or very fearful, or to describe a room in their house (neutral). Participants then watched videos of a virtual physician delivering information about the genomic or behavioral underpinnings of weight and answered questions about their intentions to alter their diets or increase exercise in the next six months.

Those in a fearful state who received genomic information rated diet and exercise as less influential for body weight, and had lower intentions to change their diet and exercise behaviors, according to the study.

In her previous work, Dr. Persky showed that providing genomic information about weight to overweight women did not tend to undercut the motivation to perform health behaviors. This led her to look for other factors that might change the way genomic information about weight is interpreted.

"Researchers tend to think that communication related to genomics and common disease is fairly unrelated to emotion," she said. "This study shows that emotion, even when that emotion is coming from somewhere unrelated to the genomics discussion, can actually be pretty influential on how people think about genomic influences on body weight and obesity." 

How people react to hearing about genomic factors in a condition that is typically attributed to behavior will probably be very different depending on the person, the interaction and the way the information is communicated, she theorizes. 

"The kind of genomic information we have to give people today can't predict or explain body weight very well, so its impact is limited," Dr. Persky said. "One of these days, we will hopefully be able to provide much more complete and useful genomic information related to weight, and when that happens, we want to be able to share it in the most meaningful way."

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Last Updated: April 20, 2016

On Other Sites:

Genomic Information may Inhibit Weight-Related Behavior Change Inclinations Among Individuals in a Fear State
Annals of Behavioral Medicine, February 5, 2016

Further Resources:

Genomic Information may Inhibit Weight-Related Behavior Change Inclinations Among Individuals in a Fear State
Annals of Behavioral Medicine, February 5, 2016