DNA testing used to be limited to doctors’ offices. But in April, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first direct-to-consumer DNA tests through the company 23andMe. With a saliva test that can be done at home, consumers can see if they’re predisposed to certain diseases. While having a wealth of personal health information in your hands seems like a great idea, there are some things to consider.
First, it’s important to know how the test works, and what it’s testing for. According to the FDA, 23andMe tests for over 500,000 genetic variants, and the presence or absence of some of the variants may be linked to a risk for certain diseases. 23andMe tests genetic risk for 10 diseases and conditions including Parkinson’s, late-onset Alzheimer’s, celiac and blood disorders.
Let’s say your test comes back positive for a genetic risk—does that mean you have the disease or will eventually develop it? In short, no.
“…genetic risk is just one piece of the bigger puzzle; it does not mean they will or won’t ultimately develop the disease,” Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, said in the FDA’s statement about the 23andMe test approval. Lifestyle and environmental factors also play a part in whether a person will develop a disease they are at higher risk for.
Interestingly, research published last year about DNA tests performed in doctors’ offices showed that even if someone has a risk for developing a disease, it may not even have much effect on changing their health behaviors.
If you do opt to take an at-home DNA test, it of course has the potential to cause some worry. For one thing, it’s always possible that you could get a false positive or false negative, the FDA says. This is why you may also want to talk to a genetic counselor, as they can help you make sense of the results and tell you what to expect before even taking the test. This NBC report suggests additional resources including the National Human Genome Research Institute and GeneTests. However, U.S. News & World Report points out that sometimes the results from at-home tests are listed as hundreds of common genetic variations that “aren’t practical” to analyze at the doctor’s office or even with a genetic counselor.
Still, the test could be right for you if you’re the type who wants to make use of this medical advancement and have more of your personal health information available to you. The results could prompt lifestyle changes, or if anything, prompt an interesting discussion over dinner about your family’s ancestry.
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