It is now easy and relatively inexpensive for consumers to take tests that reveal basic information about their genetic health and ancestry. The market for such tests is booming, a trend that will likely continue following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s recent streamlining of the approval process for bringing tests to market.
One of the more popular tests, 23andMe, costs $199 and can reveal a number of genetic predispositions. For example, you can discover if you are predisposed to lactose intolerance or a tendency to drink a lot of coffee. It can also tell you whether or not you have one of the genetic markers that increase your chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
The popularity of 23andMe and similar tests is understandable. If you know you have a risk for certain medical conditions, you can take steps to try and prevent them. You can avoid specific foods, take the right vitamins, exercise regularly, or visit the doctor more frequently for screening. However, what about diseases that cannot be prevented by steps like these, or diseases that have no cure, such as Alzheimer’s? Do you really want to know that you are predisposed to developing a life-threatening medical condition?
An article on HuffPost explores this question and quotes Erica Ramos, incoming president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors. She frames the question this way: “Everyone needs to think about how much they want to know. There are people who say, ‘Information is power’ and thrive from learning as much as possible. Then there are others who say, ‘You can’t prevent it. You can’t treat it. You can’t modify your lifestyle. Why would I want to know?'”
The FDA has recognized this dilemma. When it approved 23andMe it required the company to make consumers choose whether they wanted to receive reports about their predisposition to late-onset Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. After ordering, test takers are warned that: “If you tend to feel anxious or have ever been diagnosed with anxiety or depression, you may have more emotional difficulty with these reports.” In addition, the site, urges consumers to meet with a genetic counselor before they receive the results.
In our next post we’ll explain why a predisposition for Alzheimer’s disease does not mean you will fall victim to it.