Health DNA Testing

In recent blogs, we discussed DNA testing as a tool for exploring your genetic heritage. But the biggest boom in DNA testing isn’t about discovering your ancestry. It’s about discovering YOU. There are numerous companies offering tests that analyze genetic markers related to your health and physical well-being.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding this type of DNA testing. One concern is with keeping the data secure. If your test results reveal you are likely to get a serious disease, you probably don’t want that information leaked to your employer (present or future) or to potential health insurance providers. Although all the companies doing DNA testing promise confidentiality, no computer system is immune to being hacked. Once the testing is done and the information stored, it is theoretically at risk of being stolen and used in ways that could negatively affect you.

Another issue is the potential for emotional distress. If you have a genetic profile that makes it highly likely you will get Alzheimer’s or another serious and incurable disease, do you really want to know? To deal with this second issue, companies now let you opt out of testing for conditions with profound, life-changing consequences. Finally, there are concerns with how accurate these tests are and whether the kind of information they provide is really that useful.

Every company offers a different menu of testing services. Some companies offer genetic testing not only for health conditions you might be prone to, but also analyzing genetic markers that may affect the health of your offspring and future descendants. This type of “carrier gene analysis” is controversial because even if you have the gene and can pass it on, you may not have the disease, and your offspring may only be at risk if their other parent also carries the gene. Finding out if you’re a carrier is not necessarily meaningful unless both parents (or prospective parents) are tested.

For individuals whose families belong to ethnic groups at high risk for certain diseases, doctors will often order DNA testing. In instances like this, having a doctor analyze and discuss the results with you would probably be a lot more helpful than simply getting the results in a computerized report. Also, if ordered by a doctor, the cost of this type of DNA testing might well be covered by insurance. Related to this are tests for types of cancer that have a strong genetic link, like the BRCA mutation that predisposes some women to breast and ovarian cancer. Again, this information is something you would need to discuss with a doctor anyway, so consumer genetic testing is probably not ideal for this situation.

The latest DNA testing craze is in companies that offer genetic testing they claim can help you find the most effective diet for weight loss and the best exercise program, as well as other analytics geared toward maximizing your health, fitness and athletic performance. This is a pretty gray area, as the data and analysis process for this type of testing is still in its early stages. Scientists are discovering there are a tremendous number of variables that predispose people to weight gain, and when it comes to fine-tuning diet and exercise programs based on your DNA, many experts are skeptical. But gaining information about your body is almost always helpful. If nothing else it makes you more aware of what you are eating and how it may affect you. The same is true of exercise. If a test helps you target the types of exercise that your body is most suited to, that may well motivate you to exercise more.

Another area that is just beginning to be explored is how your DNA affects your response to prescription drugs. This type of DNA testing is called pharmacogenetic testing. These tests analyze genetic markers associated with how the liver metabolizes chemicals in different types of drugs. For the most part, companies that offer this type of test will only do it through a doctor. Which makes sense, since most of the drugs involved would have to be prescribed by a physician anyway. I did find one company that appears to offer such testing direct to consumers, although the price was quite steep–$399. But a number of companies do offer limited drug metabolism testing as part of their overall package, and as time goes on and industry competition continues to grow, it’s likely companies will keep adding services like pharmacogenetics testing to their basic DNA profile testing.

With so many companies offering more and more types of DNA testing services, it can get pretty confusing. And it’s important to remember these companies are out to make money, and they have experts helping market their services to you. To choose the company that will give you the most useful results, you need to be clear about your goals and what you hope to accomplish. It’s also important to do your research. You can find reviews of DNA testing services on-line. From reading these, you may be able to narrow down your options, compare prices and make an informed decision. And in a final blog post in this series, I plan to share my own experiences with DNA testing, which may aid you in deciding what your goals are and which company will give you the most satisfactory results.

~Mary G.