Health Care

Its in Your Genes Is a Home DNA Test Worth It

Human beings are curious by nature. We want answers, and for many of us, the "unknown" is utterly unacceptable. Now, there are promises for cracking some of the great unknowns: Are you at risk for a serious health problem, like cancer? Is your child going to be a huge sports superstar?

Home DNA or genetic test kits are probably on the shelves at your local drugstore. They're sold with the promise to unlock secrets like these. Will you buy one? Spending the money instead on an extra check-up during the year may be a better investment.

What's a DNA Test?

Inside the cells of your body are genes made up of DNA, which stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. These genes are passed on to your from your parents, and they're responsible for the color of your eyes and hair. They also show your chances or likelihood of getting certain diseases or disorders, such as cancer or blood clots.

DNA tests check to see if you have genes that are linked to those diseases. In the home test kits, you either take a blood sample or swab of saliva from your mouth and send it to a test-maker where it's analyzed. The tests cost between $80 and $1200, or more, depending .

Unresolved Problems with Home Tests

In 2010, just before drugstore giant Walgreens' planned to sell DNA kits, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) stepped in and wanted more information about the tests. It told test makers they needed FDA approval before they could sell their kits, or at least explain why they thought FDA approval wasn't needed. Some stores and manufacturers delayed selling the kits.

However, the FDA hasn't barred the sale of home DNA test kits, but it is still working on the problem of whether or not to regulate them. In the meantime, they are available in some stores, and you can buy one online.

Why the Concern?

Primarily, the FDA was, and still is, concerned about test-makers' claims about the tests, accuracy of the tests, and consumers' reactions to test results. As for claims about the tests, test-makers claim their tests can tell you about your risk of developing a particular disease, like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or Alzheimer's. While, technically, DNA tests can help determine your susceptibility to these and other diseases, there's no proof that the home DNA tests are accurate for this.

Also, just because you have a particular gene doesn't necessarily mean you'll contract a disease connected to that gene. On the flip side, not having a particular gene doesn’t necessarily mean you won't get a particular disease. The FDA has fears about consumer responses to the tests. Some may be good. For example, a woman who discovers she has an increased risk of breast cancer, or man with an increased risk of prostate cancer, may get screenings earlier and more often.

On the other hand, the same man and woman whose DNA test is "clean" may delay or never get screenings for those medical conditions because they don't think they're needed. Someone may decide not to quit smoking because a DNA test didn't show a risk of lung cancer. The list goes on.

The Testers Failed the Test

Undercover investigators from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tested the services of four companies that sell genetic tests directly to customers over the Internet. The investigators provided DNA samples to companies that claimed they could detect the risks of developing diseases such as breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and colon cancer.

The GAO reported that the test results were conflicting and of no practical value to consumers. For example, identical DNA samples were provided to all four companies, and the companies gave very different predictions about the donor's risk of developing prostate cancer. One said the risk was above average, one said it was below average, and two said it was average.

Investigators say the companies also gave consumers only general information about test results. They failed to provide the expert advice they advertised.

What You Can Do

Consider this before you rush out to buy a home test kit:

  • Talk to your doctor before you take the test. She can help you decide if a test is meaningful for you and which test you should use
  • Talk to your doctor after you get the results to make sure the test was done properly. Don't start to self-medicate or make diet or lifestyle changes without talking to your doctor first
  • Be wary of claims that a test can show how well your body can respond to or withstand things known to be health hazards, like tobacco
  • Be wary of offers for special dietary aids and supplements to help you prevent diseases "indicated" by your test
  • Call your insurance carrier before you make appointments for special tests, screenings, or procedures, such as colonoscopies and cancer screenings. Your insurance may not cover it unless your doctor orders the test

Everyone wants to stay healthy and guard against disease. You can do this by following your doctor's advice: Exercise, eat well, and get periodic check-ups. A costly, possibly inaccurate, and complicated DNA test may not be necessary.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do DNA testing facilities have to keep my test results private and confidential?
  • Can an employer or insurance company require applicants to take a DNA test?
  • Can a test maker be liable for a consumer's depression or physical injuries suffered by customer because he got the wrong test results or interpreted them incorrectly?
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