Dear Savvy Senior
What can you tell me about home genetic tests that predict the risks of developing certain diseases? My mother died from breast cancer and dad died from a heart attack many years ago, and I’m wondering if these diseases are in my genes too.
It used to be that genetic tests were only available through doctors’ offices. But today dozens of companies offer at-home genetic test kits for the early detection of hereditary diseases like heart disease, diabetes, various types of cancers, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and more. In addition, many people interested in genealogy also turn to home gene tests to learn about their ancestry. Here’s what you should know.
If you want to try an at-home genetic test, all’s you need to do is order a kit from a gene-testing company like deCODEme.com, 23andMe.com or Navigenics.com. The cost: between $200 and $1,000 depending on the company and options you choose, and you’ll have to pay for it out-of-pocket. Some health plans including Medicare may cover some gene tests ordered by health care providers but not by consumers themselves.
Once you receive the kit, you’ll need to give a DNA sample either by spitting into a collection tube or swabbing your cheek, and then mail it to the company laboratory for analysis. Your results are usually sent back or are posted online in about a month, and some companies offer genetic counseling to help you interpret the results.
Pros and Cons
While there are definite advantages to home gene testing – it’s quick, easy, and convenient and doesn’t requite a trip to the doctor’s office – you also need to be aware of the risks and limitations. There’s little government oversight of commercial home tests, and many experts in the field warn that without guidance from a healthcare professional you may not understand or misinterpret the results, or not have enough accurate information to make informed health care decisions.
If you do decide to try an in-home gene test, the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention all recommend that you:
• Talk to your doctor before you buy a kit to make sure you understand the benefits and limitations of the test.
• Ask your doctor or get a genetic counselor to review your test results with you.
You also need to note that if you do get tested, keep your information private. While federal law prohibits the use of genetic information to deny health insurance or employment to asymptomatic people, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act does not protect against discrimination in disability insurance, life insurance, or long-term care insurance coverage.
Family Health History
Another way to learn what genetic disorders you may be at risk for is to chart the illnesses of your siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and other blood relatives. To do this, the U.S. Surgeon General offers a free Web-based tool called “My Family Health Portrait” (see FamilyHistory.hhs.gov or call 888-478-4423 to receive a free printed copy) that will help you organize the information. Also see GeneticAlliance.org/familyhealthhistory.
If you find patterns in your family history that concern you and you’re thinking about genetic testing, consult your doctor and ask for a referral to a genetic counselor.
You can also find one through the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ Web site at www.nsgc.org, or call 312-321-6834. They’re trained to analyze your family history, evaluate your risk of developing or passing along an inherited disease, offer advice about whether genetic testing is warranted, interpret your test results, and provide you with additional support.
Savvy Tip: For more information on genetic testing and conditions visit the National Library of Medicine’s Genetics Home Reference at www.ghr.nlm.nih.gov.
Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book.