Why you should care
Because life’s experiences may have the ability to modify genes, which can be passed on to children — for better or worse.
Germans are worriers. We can hardly go one day without suffering existential anxiety and we hate change. It’s even got a name: “German angst.”
It’s real. The Unisys Security Index, based on a bi-annual survey of national, financial, Internet and personal security, currently shows a value of 146 out of a possible 300 points for Germany. In comparison: Great Britain’s at 103 on the angst scale, while Holland is only at 66.
The Germans are driven by a feeling of permanent threat. To counteract this, they invented the welfare state, accept things like a reform backlog and spend billions on insurance policies to secure against practically any risk that life could throw at them.
Whether it’s cantankerous neighbors or burglary, the loss of a mobile phone or replacement teeth, life or even death — policies for every eventuality are piled high in German shelves.
Are Germans doomed to remain worriers forever? Maybe not.
Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt fingered the source. “The Germans have a tendency to be afraid. This has been part of their consciousness since the end of the Nazi period and the war,” he said in 2011.
Science suggests he’s right. Research has shown that trauma, stress and even nutrition can change the chemistry of the genetic code, making it possible to pass it to descendants. Can it be true that the cause of German angst really lies in the trauma suffered by our parents and grandparents almost 70 years ago during the Nazi era?
Dutch researchers from the University Clinic Amsterdam delivered initial findings that war experience can be hereditary. The winter of 1944–45 was harsh and people in the Netherlands were starving. Years of war had ravaged the country and a food embargo was in force.
More than 20,000 people starved to death. Babies born during this winter of starvation were extraordinarily small, with barely a single one weighing over 5.5 pounds. Women born under these conditions also gave birth to noticeably small children — even though the food shortage was over.
Additionally, according to the study published in the trade magazine Molecular and Cellular Endocrinology, mothers produced an above-average number of children who suffered from diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
The body basically switched the metabolism to low flame to increase its chance of survival.
The Dutch researchers assume that the malnutrition in the winter of starvation led to a change in the methylation pattern in the DNA of those affected. Methyl groups in the DNA decide whether a gene is transcribed — the more methyl groups hanging in one section of DNA, the more tightly packed it is and the more difficult it is for it to be transcribed.
Researchers presume that several of the methyl groups became lost due to the lack of food. The body basically switched the metabolism to low flame to increase its chance of survival.
However, when the times of excess arrived following the war, the advantage became a disadvantage: The organism of the descendants could not handle the abundance of food — which would explain the increased rate of diabetes.
Another time, another continent, another trauma: When planes flew into the twin towers of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, the event shocked millions of people around the world — and particularly those who were eyewitnesses to the terrorist attack.
Together with Rachel Yehuda from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, German psychiatrist and chemist Florian Holsboer from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich studied a group of 40 eyewitnesses to the attack. Five years after the event, half of them were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, while the other half were not.
The researchers were able to find epigenetic modifications in the affected test subjects. According to the study published in the trade magazine Biological Psychiatry, up to 25 genes were modified, including one called FKBP5. When this gene is inactive, the control of the stress hormone cortisol no longer works properly and the affected persons can no longer react appropriately to stress — resulting in a stress disorder.
Of course, no one can prove whether the traumatic event altered the genetic material. The unfavorable genetic marking could have existed already, in theory.
However, laboratory tests on mice suggest angst is inherited. Scientists at Zurich University traumatized baby mice by separating them from their mothers for several hours a day. They consequently showed depressive behavior and also lost their fear of open spaces and bright light, write the researchers in the April edition of the trade journal Nature Neuroscience.
This behavioral disorder was then inherited by the following generation. The Swiss scientists mated males from traumatized litters with females not subjected to stress in early childhood — and the next generation demonstrated the unusual behavioral pattern.
As the mouse fathers are not involved in rearing the young, the disorder could not have been passed to the descendants via social interaction.
Are Germans doomed to remain worriers forever? Maybe not. In their tests with mice, the researchers in Zurich also discovered that the epigenetics of the stressed mice and their descendants can normalize when they experience positive environmental influences.
They placed the animals in large cages for several weeks, let them live in social groups and provided them with a variety of opportunities for movement and play. This not only normalized their behavior but also that of the following generations.
And the Germans, too, seem to be slowly freeing themselves from excessive angst. The Unisys Security Index, which is at 146 points today, used to be higher: In the first survey in 2007, the result was 163 points.
So the angst index in Germany has decreased by 11 percent over the past seven years. Further progress may take time. After all, people live longer than mice, so it will take that much longer to wipe the angst genes away.