Are you purchasing Ancestry.com or 23andMe for all your relatives on Black Friday? If so, you soon may be one of the estimated 100 million consumers who will have direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing by 2021.1 With improved technology and increased profits, consumer-directed companies promote easy and affordable tests for both ancestry and health information.
However, both the general public and the health care provider community need to be aware of the potential utility and limitations of such tests. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which promotes health and quality of life, and the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates the manufacturers of genetic tests and has approved certain tests such as Parkinson’s disease and late-onset Alzheimer’s disease for the commercial market, genetic tests are not 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.
In fact, a critical assessment tool for evaluating your risk factors for inherited medical conditions and diseases is a family conversation. You know that your family members share genes, but do you know that common behavior, such as exercise habits and what you eat, as well as where you live and work, are contributing factors? Family history includes all of these factors, any of which can affect your health.
If you know a lot about your family health history or maybe only a little, to get the complete story, use family gatherings, such as Thanksgiving, as a time to talk about your family’s health history. If possible, look at death certificates and family medical records. Collect information about your parents, sisters, brothers, half-sisters, half-brothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews. Include information on major medical conditions, causes of death, age at disease diagnosis, age at death, and ethnic background. Be sure to update the information regularly and share what you have learned with your doctor. In fact, you can use the Surgeon General’s free, web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” to keep track of the information. The Surgeon General even offers tips, both in English and Spanish, for getting started.
So this holiday season, as you gather with family, in addition to giving Grandma, Aunt Mary, and Uncle Bruce a consumer-directed genetic testing kit, start a conversation about your family health history.
1 Khan R and Mittelman D. Consumer genomics will change your life, whether you get tested or not. Genome Biology. 2018;19:120 https://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-018-1506-1