What is Genetics? : Frequent Questions & Answers

Can a genetic test I buy at the store or online tell me my risk for certain diseases?

There are many genetic test kits that are currently available that claim to give you information about your health. These genetic tests are offered directly to the consumer (you) without being ordered by a physician or genetic counselor. These tests that can be taken at home are often offered at a relatively low price and can be attractive due to their claims of predicting your genetic destiny. They often claim to give you predictions about your risk for complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes or osteoporosis. There are even others that suggest the type of diet that would best suit your genetic makeup or the type of exercise that would be most beneficial for you based on your genes. Learn more about the complex diseases some tests may look at: Complex Disease

The fact that a doctor doesn’t order it doesn’t mean that the information given by these do-it-yourself genetic tests is necessarily bad or wrong. But it does mean that a person should take caution about how they use the information they get from them. The problem with these genetic tests is that we do not yet know enough about all of the genes involved in causing complex diseases to make recommendations based on the results of the test. Some results may be based on relatively few genes or weak associations with many different genes. Because of this, a person’s genetic test may say that they have a low risk for a disease based on the finding of a single gene variation, when in reality they have several other variations (that weren’t tested for) in other genes that actually increase their risk for the disease. This may falsely reassure someone that they are at lower risk for the disease than they truly are.

Another major issue with genetic testing that isn’t ordered by a physician is that there is little or no genetic counseling associated with ordering the test or receiving the results. When a genetic test is ordered through a physician, genetic counseling is typically offered, which allows a patient to ask questions and gain information about the implications of the test, how they can use the information, and if they are emotionally ready for the information. Some of these tests can identify mutations that have significant health implications. It may be psychologically upsetting for someone to learn they are at risk for a specific disease for which there is little that can be done to prevent or treat. The bottom line for these at-home genetic tests is that the results may be interesting and possibly helpful in the future, but your family health history is still the best indicator of your risk for complex diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer!