My husband recently decided to order a genetic screening kit from 23 and Me. He’s a physician and does a lot of medical research, looking for ways to prevent preterm birth and other illness in women. Since they do more and more genetic screening on patients, he decided to do some on himself.
When his results came in, we found out really important information about his health, as well as his potential longevity, which makes a big difference in some of the day to day decisions we are making as a family. For example, based on his DNA, he has long telomeres, which means his chance for living to age 95 or older is greater than average, which means we better not skimp on retirement planning now.
Understanding DNA and Your “Destiny”
It’s probably important at this point to say a thing or two about DNA. I was at a lecture this week given by Dr. George Saade of the University of Texas. Dr. Saade looks at the influence of women’s health on the health of their offspring. Dr Saade explains DNA and health this way- DNA is like the textbook, but your environment and your diet, exercise, actions, etc. are like the notes in the margin. The main text is what it is, but the commentary, questions, and notes made can make a substantial difference in personalizing and understanding the deeper meaning of the text itself. For example, we’re starting to learn more and more that what genes are active or not can be determined by the environment, leading to more rapid change in traits and expression than we would expect solely due to evolution. (This is the nascent field of Epigenetics, and Time Magazine has written some really fascinating articles about it.) Your genes may show you have a higher than average risk for some diseases, but how you manage your health has a huge impact on these various issues.
As a result of my husband’s tests, I’ve had my own DNA analyzed and I am about to do it for my sons as well. My results are just coming in right now, and I’m relieved I have a decreased risk for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. I know I also have long telomeres, leading to an above average chance of living to 100, so time to start truly taking care of the body and joints- I can’t really assume they will have replaceable parts by then that are good and will last forever. Playing wheelchair bumper cars in the nursing home may not be nearly as much fun as walking hand in hand with my husband on the beach when we’re 95.
The ancestry information is interesting as well. My husband is a distant cousin of one of my favorite authors, Malcolm Gladwell. All those family stories I heard from my Grandmother about her grandfather being a Prussian general might actually be true. When you look at different genetic markers, you can see the spread of genes along trade routes going back to the Roman and Ottoman Empires, with other people with those markers currently living in India, Iran, Kurdistan, Germany, Russia, Italy, Spain or having relatives from that part of the world.
All of this has been fascinating and useful. My son’s learning disability may be due to a gene identified that gives my side of the family a slightly increased risk for developmental dyslexia, balanced off with genes for increased episodic memory and higher than average intelligence. I can look at these results and “blame” the genes for some of it, but how we work around those issues in daily life is really much more important, and that I have learned already.
What genes can tell us not only about our ancestors, but our potential response to drugs, potential for various disease, and even longevity can make a difference now. There is, of course, potential scary news lying in wait in our genes for some people. Some families may have a higher risk for some particularly nasty cancers, or for things like Alzheimer’s. But knowing might help those people make different and hopefully helpful choices on seeking early treatment for disease, or making life plans and choices that take this information into account. (ie. Don’t avoid taking that trip or putting off something you’ve always wanted to do, because you might not have infinite chances to do so- but that’s generally good advice anyway.)
There’s been fun and silly results, too. I love Tab and Diet Coke as well as coffee, and so it was not a surprise to find out I am a fast metabolizer of caffeine. I have higher odds than normal for feeling nauseous after surgery. I’ve never smoked, but my genes say that if I did, I’d be more likely to smoke more than average, giving me yet another reason never to pick up that habit. My husband’s naturally resistant to norovirus, but I’m not, meaning if we go on a cruise, I have to be extra careful with handwashing, where he can be a little more lax. (ie. make sure to bring Imodium on a cruise). I also have a genetic predisposition to a higher than average episodic memory, so when I tell my kids “I know I told you to do that chore” – they should believe me- my genes say it’s so.
This has been a really positive experience for us, and one of the best $99 I’ve spent in a long time. I know looking into what’s already been written in our genes can seem daunting, but at least for us, it’s been both reassuring and motivating to do things like tackle the weight issues once and for all- I’m going to have this body for a long time, so time to whip it into shape for real.
What do you think? Is genetic testing a good thing or a bad thing? What would you do with your results?