DNA Testing

Strands of DNA

Can DNA Testing Really Help You Identify Genetic Health Problems?

As technology improves, our ability to understand our own bodies is improving, too. One of the main ways people seek to learn about their genetic background and predict their future health is through DNA testing services. Many of these services claim that they can tell you about your risk for developing various health problems in the future, including Alzheimer’s disease and some types of cancer. Here’s what you need to know about whether these services actually work, and whether getting tested is worthwhile for you.

DNA Testing

How Popular DNA Testing Services Work

The majority of human DNA is identical. 99.9 percent of your DNA is exactly the same as other people’s. However, everyone has unique genetic markers—which comprise only about 0.1 percent of their total DNA—that make them unique. When you take a DNA test, such as the ones offered by companies like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, the tests analyze your genetic markers to figure out where your ancestors came from and what diseases you may be particularly susceptible to.

Services that provide DNA testing have to rely on their existing “banks” of DNA knowledge to figure out what each individual’s genetic markers mean in terms of ethnicity and health risks. In other words, there is no exact “code” that indicates where a person is from or what diseases they may develop. Instead, testing companies compare your data to other people’s data using special algorithms. The more closely your genetic markers match the company’s existing data for a particular ancestry or disease, the more likely it is that you have that ancestry, or will develop that disease.

Do DNA Tests Provide Accurate Results?

DNA tests generally provide accurate results. However, testing methods are not perfect yet. It’s important to be aware that even the most sophisticated DNA testing algorithms cannot pick out all the nuances of your genetic makeup. In other words, when you take a DNA test, your results are likely accurate — but they probably aren’t complete. DNA tests miss things frequently, and your results will only be as good as the data banks and algorithms of the company you choose.

What Are the Limits of Today’s DNA Tests?

First things first: if a DNA test tells you that you are at increased risk for genetic disorders, it does not mean that you are guaranteed to develop them. You should take the information seriously, of course, but it’s never a good idea to panic over the results of a DNA test. Instead, use the knowledge to make positive decisions for your health going forward.

It’s also important to keep in mind that DNA tests do not test for all the genetic markers that we know cause disease. There are simply too many, and commercial DNA tests are currently not sophisticated enough to provide a full report of health risks for every individual. So even if your test results say that you are not at risk for particular diseases, that doesn’t mean your actual risk is zero. If you have any questions or concerns about your health, it’s always better to talk to your doctor instead of relying on a DNA test.

Should You Get Tested?

DNA testing can be an interesting way to learn more about your ancestors’ ethnicity and your own genetic makeup. It can also be a useful way to identify any genetic disorders you might be at risk for. However, no testing method is 100 percent accurate. If you have the money to do so, go ahead and get tested; it could even save your life. However, remember that the results may be incomplete and can’t replace advice from your doctor.