Health and Happiness  

The benefits – and the costs – of home DNA tests

To spit or not to spit...

Is the wealth of information about your individual health risks worth the anxiety of knowing? 

DNA testing kits have made it possible to access previously unmined information about your health. As a huge advocate of preventative medicine, I’ve explored the pros and cons of accessing this wealth of information to see whether your spit is worth the price tag – and the consequences. 

Firstly, what is it? Companies like 23andMe offer a home-based saliva collection kit – you spit in the tube and send it to the lab. From there, your DNA is extracted from the spit and a process called genotyping analyses the DNA. 

You then receive a report with your health predispositions (diseases you are more likely to get due to your genes) and your carrier status of certain diseases, such as cystic fibrosis. 

The most obvious benefit of getting your DNA tested is identifying your personal health predispositions. For instance, the report might indicate you’re at risk of getting type 2 diabetes, or heart disease. With this information, you can make changes to your lifestyle to help prevent these diseases from occurring, such as quitting smoking, drinking less caffeine or eating less sugar.

Despite these benefits, it is important to consider the emotional stress of receiving unfortunate results. Finding out you are at high risk of Alzheimer’s has a huge emotional impact on an individual and their family, especially as there is little you can do to prevent it.

Personally, I wouldn’t want to know I’m at high risk for a disease I can’t do anything about – I think the anxiety the knowledge would cause wouldn’t be worth the information.

It’s also important to note that genealogy results aren’t definitive. For instance, they may identify the gene that can cause high cholesterol, which in turn can increase the risk of heart disease. However, the test doesn’t take into account any other personal or environmental factors, such as your diet, exercise and lifestyle. Without input from your own family doctor or a genetic counsellor, the results cannot be taken as gospel. 

The uses of genealogy DNA databases extend beyond personal use for health and ancestry information, and this is the part where I begin to question the safety of using these kits. Although companies have rigorous privacy policies, they do still keep your DNA and information in a database in order to identify future clients that may be within your family tree. 

This data is vulnerable to hackers, but also to police and immigration officials. The CBSA uses genealogy DNA testing in an immigration setting to ascertain a person’s identity, such as the country they originate from. 

From the uses we know about, to those yet to be found – I’m not sure I want my DNA in a database with unknown potential. 

There are also important financial implications that accompany genetic testing, such as the fact that some insurance companies now say you must disclose any genetic risk information you are aware of, which can mean higher premiums for health, life and travel insurance.  

Having mused over the idea for several weeks, with my mouse hovering over the ‘Add to Cart’ button more than once, I’ve decided genetic testing is not for me, for now. I personally don’t think you should need a genetic test to tell you to live a healthier lifestyle – to exercise more, eat more greens and get better sleep. 

If it’s something you’re thinking about, or have done, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. If not, take it from me – get out for a cycle or a run, spend more time with your family and eat some broccoli with a smile on your face. 


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About the Author

Dr. Hannah Gibson graduated from medical school in the UK before moving to live in Canada. During her five years at university, she's worked in every department from pediatrics to geriatrics, advocating for both physical and mental health. Now based in Kelowna, she works to provide outreach healthcare for the homeless community. 

Hannah is passionate about preventative medicine, and the focus of her column is to educate and inspire people to take proactive measures to improve their health. 

Hannah believes that we all can, and should, take responsibility for our own health. It is the most important asset we have, and should be respected as such. Follow each week as she gives you the tools to improve your own health and wellbeing, and ultimately live a happier and healthier life. 

Get in touch through the comments section, or by emailing Hannah on [email protected].

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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