You’ve probably seen them marketed on television or the radio—genetic tests that can reveal elevated risks for certain diseases written right into your DNA. That seems like good information for older adults to know, but can these tests really predict your medical future? Companies that offer testing say they provide information that can be beneficial to consumers. Government agencies and medical professionals, however, warn the information can be misleading.
How Does Genetic Testing Work?
Websites like 23andMe.com and dnadtc.com provide options for people to order genetic tests from home. 23andMe bills itself as more of an informational site, providing results on predispositions to disease as well as inherited physical traits and genealogical information. DNA DTC, on the other hand, gives highly technical DNA analysis at a range of research levels. The company stresses it only provides information to consumers; it doesn’t give an analysis into what the data means. Other DNA tests from a variety of companies are sold via television commercials or in stores.
Most DNA samples for direct-to-consumer testing services are obtained through saliva or an oral swab. Once you order a test, the company will send you equipment to provide a sample of your spit or to swab the inside of your cheek. Then you send the kit back to the lab where scientists process the sample and “read” your genetic code.
What Should I Know About Genetic Testing?
Right now, genetic tests done through direct-to-consumer online services (not specific screenings through your doctor’s office) are not intended as a diagnostic tool. The Centers for Disease Control and the Federal Drug Administration warn that “some of these tests lack scientific validity, and others provide medical results that are meaningful only in the context of a full medical evaluation.” That’s, in part, why these services are largely outlawed in the state of New York, which has strict regulations on who can and can’t collect DNA. New York regulations also say DNA tests can only occur at the request of a physician, practitioner, or attorney licensed in the state.
Having a genetic predisposition to a disease is just one part in a spectrum of factors that play into the future of your health. Lifestyle choices and medical history also play a strong role in whether you may develop serious medical complications in your lifetime, according to the National Institutes of Health. In fact, two leading researchers at Johns Hopkins University worry genetic testing through direct-to-consumer companies might give people a false sense of security, when they should be focusing instead on preventive measures like healthy diet, smoking cessation, and regular medical screenings.
The National Institutes of Health, meanwhile, warns testing can cause emotional distress or even family discord if the results offer bad news, even if it’s unclear if or how those results may effect your long-term outlook. This is especially true of results suggesting you may have a predisposition to a serious, incurable illness like Alzheimer’s disease. That means before you decide to order a test, you should seriously consider if you’re emotionally prepared to see the results. You should also decide if you can treat the results as a piece of information that might satisfy your curiosity and not a medical diagnosis. Talking to your doctor or a genetic counselor can help you sort through these questions.
The final two cautions have to do with privacy and cost. Be sure to read the fine print before you send your DNA to a lab if you have concerns about keeping your genetic code private. Some companies use genetic codes they get from mail order services for additional research as part of their business model. The costs for ordering such tests range from a few hundred to thousands of dollars.