I am a huge proponent of genetic testing. For me, it’s not about ancestry, but because I am curious about my health and traits. From talking to many people about testing, I also understand that many do not want to get tested due to various reasons. In this email, I’ll write about the benefits and drawbacks of genetic testing.
Before listing the pros and cons of genetic testing, it’s important to understand how DNA tests work. In short, DNA is the building block of your genes, encoding the instructions of who you are. Genes are DNA sequences containing instructions for building molecules, such as proteins. These sequences are packed into 23 pairs of chromosomes. For each pair, you get one from your mother and one from your father.
Most of our DNA sequences are the same, but there are differences between people. These differences are called variants. Many of these variants have no known effect, but some variants are associated with certain health conditions, traits and ancestries. The value in testing is the mapping of these variants, helping you understand how your genes influence you.
Only by getting your DNA analyzed will you be able to tell which variants you might have. When you get a DNA test, the provider you chose will send a DNA testing kit to your home. Providing a sample is easy – most only need a cheek swab or some saliva. After the lab receives your sample, they perform DNA analysis to identify these variants, known as SNPs [single nucleotide polymorphisms] in your genetic code that can relate to certain health traits or conditions.
Pros and cons of genetic testing
There are many pros and cons of genetic testing. In this section, we will outline a few aspects you should consider before undergoing a DNA test. However, it is up to you to decide if getting your DNA tested is the right decision for you.
- To learn whether you have a genetic condition that runs in your family before you have symptoms – Your genes don’t just influence how likely you are to develop a health condition or trait. When you understand what your genetic predispositions are, you can make targeted changes to your lifestyle to counteract the negative effects of your genes.
- To learn the chance a current or future pregnancy will have a genetic condition – Knowing how potential health issues might affect you or other family members can help you be proactive about your health and make better-informed decisions. The more you know about your genetic risks, the more effective you are likely to become in trying to counteract them in order to live a healthier life.
- To diagnose a genetic condition if you or your child has symptoms
- To understand and guide a cancer prevention or treatment plan
- Privacy concerns – When you get a DNA test, you are submitting your genetic information to another party. Unfortunately, there are valid concerns regarding how some companies handle customer data. Some companies sell your data to third parties, such as pharmaceutical companies; essentially monetizing your data. Do your research before purchasing a test to make sure you understand how your data will be handled. It’s also worth checking if you feel secure with the steps taken to ensure your data is safe or if it can be discarded after the test is complete. Make sure you retain control over your report and sample as much as possible. It’s important to be able to access your raw data and have the ability to delete your data from their systems.
- Increased stress from potential health risks – Knowing that you’re genetically predisposed to a health condition or trait can be unsettling to some people. However, keep in mind that this knowledge can be an advantage instead of a burden. Many health problems can have a genetic component. Just because your genes can make it more likely that you experience health issues, it doesn’t mean that there is nothing you can do. Not all genetic testing companies provide guidance on what you can do to address your predispositions. If you want to reduce stress and anxiety, look for a company that gives you advice on how to counteract the negative effects of your genes, or hire a coach, like me, or other third-party professional for guidance.
Choosing a genetic testing company
Choosing the right company is the most important thing you can do to make sure you get the results you are seeking. Here are a few options for you to consider. Each varies in cost, reports available and privacy commitments. Be sure to do your research prior to selecting one. This is not a comprehensive list!
- 23 and me https://www.23andme.com/ (basic risk data)
- Ancestry https://www.ancestry.com/ (better for family history than genetic health risks)
More complete options, but more expensive: