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Should You Take a Home Genetic Test?

More and more people are taking home DNA tests to better understand their health risks. But do the tests do more harm than good? Here’s what to consider.

Direct-to-consumer genetic DNA testing is booming. As more and more consumers are taking advantage of convenient home tests such as 23andme and Helix to learn about their health, the process has gotten easier, faster and more affordable. But the results are far from definitive—and the emotional cons may outweigh the pros. It’s important to speak with your doctor before deciding if a home test is right for you.

How it works

Once you receive your kit, which can be ordered online, you’ll be asked to answer some questions about your health history, as well as to spit into a tube to collect your saliva for analysis. You’ll register your kit online and then mail in your sample to a lab for testing. From there, most companies don’t actually sequence your DNA but instead analyze it through a process called genotyping, which hunts for the presence of well-known bits of genetic code to see if you have any variants. You can opt in or out to let the company share your DNA results in research studies. You will receive your results via email in approximately eight to 12 weeks, depending on the company you use.

What you can learn

Consumers can find out whether they may be at increased risk for certain types of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other diseases. Some tests also tell you about interesting physical and physiological traits like cleft chins, dimples or the ability to taste bitter flavors. The tests can also sometimes help identify the safest and most effective medications to use.

Results may not be what you want to hear

Looking at your genetic data might uncover information that some people find surprising or uncomfortable. Some information can be relatively benign. Other information can have profound implications for both you and your family.

Results may not be accurate

The accuracy of the DNA part is home tests is up for debate. Some genetic specialists stress that genetic testing is still in its infancy—and that the results can be inconclusive, confusing and even wrong. It’s also important to note that tests can tell you whether you carry a marker for a certain genetic disease, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will wind up developing it.

The bottom line

Direct-to-consumer home tests may be useful tools to help you be more proactive about your health. But, if you do decide to move forward with testing, take the results with a grain of salt. Instead, use them to start a conversation with your doctor and determine whether or not further testing is a good idea.

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