At-home DNA testing has become something of a worldwide craze. Companies like 23andMe, Ancestry, Helix and MyHeritage have made at-home DNA testing into a popular product. (These companies have all been contacted by The Active Times; only 23andMe provided a response and did not refute any of our facts. We will update further if we hear back from others.)
People give the tests as gifts to their relatives. Many invest time and attention to using the results from DNA testing to map their family tree. And now, with increasing technology and access, these DNA tests are being used to gain insight with regard to health.
Of course, doctors have been administering genetic tests for quite some time. Genetic traits reveal more than just appearance. In the strands of your DNA, there are secrets to be revealed regarding your risk of disease, your allergies and intolerances, and more of your body's quirks. Getting that data can be fun! But there are some things to be considered before going all in and swabbing your saliva.
For one, the tests vary wildly in terms of credibility, depth and cost, depending on the company. Do your research before you choose. Additionally, it's important to consider the controversy over these tests and decide how you feel. To help with your decision, here are 10 pros and 10 cons to at-home DNA testing.
Pro: Results of the test may inspire you to prevent disease
Regardless of test results, it's probably a good idea to take up healthy lifestyle habits and limit harmful ones in order to reduce your risk of disease. But if you didn't think that you were at risk for a certain condition and the test reveals this information to you, it may inspire you to make a change. If you are at risk for cancer, for example, it may inspire you to reduce your alcohol intake.
Pro: You can learn about your ethnic background
If you aren't sure where your family is from, it could be fun to learn about your family's ethnic history. Who knows, you might find out about a past you never knew!
Pro: The FDA seems to be on board
While there is some skepticism about the helpfulness of these tests, the Food and Drug Administration seems to think they're a good idea. They announced a plan in 2017 to make it easier for the tests to gain approval, providing easier access to the tests for consumers.
Pro: The test is unobtrusive
Literally all you have to do is take a swab of saliva and send it off to be tested. The test is easy to take and virtually painless; you've got lots of spit to spare.
Pro: The results could ease anxieties about health
Learning you're at low risk for some diseases could be really comforting! Of course, no test is a guarantee that you'll be healthy forever, but it could ease some of your deeper worries about cancer or heart disease.
Pro: You can find out how gluten affects you
Celiac disease can be complicated. Do you feel sick after pizza because of the gluten or did you just eat too much cheese? You can help get to the bottom of what's really going on with your supposed gluten intolerance by taking a genetic test such as these. Of course, the best way is to get tested at a doctor's office. But if you're doing the at-home DNA test anyway, it's an extra perk.
Pro: You can use the results to make healthy lifestyle changes tailored to you
Some reports, such as those given by 23andMe, supply recommendations for healthy changes that work best for people with a similar genetic makeup to yours. Healthy changes such as eating more vegetables and getting enough sleep are probably a good idea for everyone, regardless of their genes. But certain actions tend to help to reduce health risk more than others, depending on your DNA, according to 23andMe.
Pro: You can find out cool facts about your body
Do you think cilantro tastes like soap? Do you find you can't handle drinks with a lot of caffeine? These apparent preferences can actually be linked to genes in many cases, so a test can help explain your quirk. Muscle composition, whether or not you move in your sleep, and even your fear of heights can be guessed at by looking at your DNA.
Pro: You may discover living relatives
A distant cousin or not-so-distant relative you didn't know about could be introduced to you through an at-home DNA test. That's pretty cool!
Pro: You can discover what traits your parents passed down to you
Maybe Dad went bald and you're worried you will, too. Or maybe you've been wondering from where you got your bright blue eyes. All of these queries could potentially be answered by taking certain companies' DNA tests.
Con: The test itself might not be accredited
According to the American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics, the tests themselves might not be accredited with the appropriate agencies. Medical tests normally have to attain laboratory accreditation through a federal program called the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA); however, not all companies selling at-home tests have this.
Con: The results may be difficult to interpret yourself
Without the help of a genetic counselor or other professional, the results of an at-home DNA test may be tough to interpret. When doctors administer DNA tests, they equip patients with genetic counselors who can help guide patients through reading results. Without this assistance, results might be misinterpreted.
Con: There are privacy concerns
Online data theft is certainly something to be wary of. While these organizations do their best to keep DNA results private on their databases, the threat of hacking is impossible to eliminate completely. Consumers who take a DNA test should at least be aware of the level of this threat they are facing, as well as what steps the company is taking to reduce risk.
Con: There isn't much counseling for dealing with results
Test results are not only intensely personal (a person's family history may stir up drama, for instance), but can also be somewhat upsetting. If you never knew you were at a high risk for a certain disease or condition and, through a DNA test, discover a new threat to your health, this can be jarring. The resulting emotions from such a discovery may be difficult to deal with - and these companies don't require any related counseling to help the transition.
Con: DNA tests are not 100 percent reliable
While the results may be emotionally difficult to come to terms with, it's also true that this reaction may not be to any real threat. The risk of genetic diseases can be estimated with these tests, but the results are not 100 percent reliable. A person taking these at-home tests may misinterpret a result as definitive.
Con: Positive results could be taken too far
A person whose DNA results say that they are at an especially low risk for a certain disease may take this information a little too far. In response to a new perceived safety, a person may let go of healthy habits they had employed to prevent the disease - causing more harm in the long run.
Con: There are psychological implications
The studies on the psychological effects of DNA testing are only preliminary. But there are a few potential things to consider. A study published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology showed that learning of a genetic predisposition to depression led to patients reporting higher levels of depressive symptoms. The DNA information in the study was actually fabricated - so regardless of actual genetic predisposition, patients being told they were predisposed to depression resulted in worse symptoms.
Con: They can be expensive
At-home DNA tests vary in cost, but can be anywhere from $60 to $200. Before purchasing, weigh your options to decide whether the test you opt for is worth the financial investment.
Con: The companies make confusing marketing claims
Claims of safety and clearance by federal organizations can be confusing. Make sure you know what these claims are saying before you use them as reason to trust a certain DNA test. For example, 23andMe's website claims "FDA-cleared for use with our Genetic Health Risk and Carrier Status reports." However, the FDA doesn't regulate genetic tests. Rather, this claim refers to the FDA's announcement in April 2017 that companies like 23andMe can market directly to consumers about their "genetic health risk" tests for 10 diseases or conditions. With this endorsement from the FDA, companies can administer these tests without mentioning risks in ads because taking saliva doesn't pose any health risks. This claim does not mean that the tests are viable for diagnostic or clinical use.
Con: You cannot use results for medical purposes
It's important to note that a DNA test administered by a doctor is very different from a DNA test administered at home. The results from these at-home DNA tests are not cleared for clinical use, meaning you shouldn't take action to treat any condition or risk of conditions without first talking to your doctor. Talking to your doctor can be tricky! If you're not sure where to start, here are some questions you should ask (but probably have been forgetting) next time you go in for a check-up.
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