Two Questions You Should Ask Before Taking an At Home DNA Test
For less than $100, companies are offering to look at a string of your DNA and tell you everything. Are you at risk of developing diabetes, cancer or arthritis? Where does your family come from? What are the chances you carry a harmful gene you could pass on to your children?
As the costs for those tests have dropped, the information they can provide has exploded. At-home testing has become a big business. In a scramble for all that money, companies have been marketing beyond what they can prove. Regulators have tried to stop the worst abuses, but things change so rapidly, it's hard to keep up.
According to the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, at home or “...direct to consumer genetic tests aren’t a suitable substitute for a traditional health care evaluation. Medical exams that include conventional laboratory tests like blood chemistry and lipid profiles are a more appropriate starting point for diagnosing diseases and assessing preventive measures.”
That doesn't mean the tests are worthless, you just have to understand what you're getting into. I'm adopted, so I didn't have any idea of my biological family's medical history. I took a test in 2015 to learn more about what my potential genetic risk factors might be. Turns out, a lot of the information the testing company gave me wasn't based on good science. However, because another person I was related to took the test, it did help me eventually find (and meet) my birth mother.
Things worked out great for me, but there are huge pitfalls for someone who's not prepared. If you're considering taking a DNA test, here are two of the important things you should consider.
First, your family may not be who you think. Early users of these tests were people trying to figure out who a child's parent was. There are cases of people who took tests for fun, and later found out the loved ones they thought were their birth parents... weren't. It's not a common occurrence, but would you be able to handle the news if you found out it was true for you?
Second, what type of test will you take? Y-DNA, mtDNA and atDNA are all designed to give you more information about who you're related to and your genetic heritage.
Y-DNA looks at the Y Chromosome, which passes from father to son. It's a way of tracing the paternal (male) relations in a family tree. Women can't take this test, but a male family member can to help provide more information. That is, as long as your parents are really who they claim.
mtDNA stands for mitochondrial DNA and that passes from a mother to all their children. Because both male and female children get the mtDNA, both men and women can take the test. However, men do not pass ON the mtDNA, only women can. So when looking at a family history, this can track the maternal line of a family.
atDNA means autosomal DNA and those tests look at chromosomes 1 through 22 and X. The autosomes (chromosomes 1 through 22) are inherited from both parents and all recent ancestors. Anyone can take this test and it's generally used to go back and estimate ethnicity as well as family connections.
There are other tests to see if you carry genes that you might pass on to children or have genes that are linked to specific diseases.
Children are routinely tested for phenylketonuria (a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability if left untreated) and congenital hypothyroidism (a disorder of the thyroid gland). Women may be tested for mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes. According to the National Cancer Institute, women with mutations in the BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes are five times more likely to develop breast cancer than women without them and 15 to 40 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer.
Having one of these genetic markers doesn't automatically mean you're going to get the disorder or suffer the disease. In many cases, it just means your odds are greater than the average person.
However, some genetic issues point to something so severe, children are typically forbidden from taking the test until they reach the age of 18. Huntington's disease (HD) is just such an example.
According to the Huntington's Disease Society of America, “Every person who inherits the expanded HD gene will eventually develop the disease. Many describe the symptoms of HD as having ALS, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s – simultaneously. It deteriorates a person’s physical and mental abilities during their prime working years and has no cure.”
Some people want to know they have the gene so they can prepare for what's going to happen. Others don't want to know simply because there is no cure and they would prefer to live without that fear.
The question becomes, what will you do with that information? Knowing might drastically change your decision to have children, marry a particular person or plan your future. That knowledge may have such a profound effect on your life, you should only consider taking the tests after talks with family, loved ones and medical professionals.
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