If you’ve ever wondered whether you might be genetically predisposed to a particular disease, you’ll soon be able to find out right at home. This month, the Food and Drug Administration authorized 23andMe, a genetic testing company, to market tests for 10 diseases or conditions directly to individuals. (1)
23andMe’s Personal Genome Service Genetic Health Risk (GHR) tests are first of a kind. That’s because the testing company gained authorization by the FDA to provide information directly to consumers and not health professionals.
This isn’t the first time the company has offered genetic testing directly to consumers. But in 2013, it was shut down in by the FDA. The agency said the company had to prove that not only were test results accurate, but that consumers understood the results. 23andMe has now met those requirements and is allowed to sell the tests; the FDA expects it will allow other companies to sell similar tests, provided they follow the same conditions 23andMe does.
23andMe IDs Genetic Risk Factors for 10 Diseases/Conditions
The way the 23andMe tests work is that customers send in a saliva sample, which is then tested for more than 500,000 DNA variants. Having — or not having — certain variants is associated with an increased risk of developing one of the 10 diseases or conditions that 23andME tests for, which include:
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, a disorder that may cause lung disease and liver cancer
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that results in Celiac disease symptoms brought on by the inability to digest gluten
Early-onset primary dystonia, a disorder characterized by progressive problems with movement
Factor XI deficiency (hemophilia C), a blood clotting disorder
Gaucher disease type 1, an organ and tissue disorder
Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD), a condition that causes red blood cells to break down
Hereditary hemochromatosis, a disease that causes the body to absorb too much iron from foods
Hereditary thrombophilia, a blood clot disorder
Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease, a dementia-based brain disorder that robs people of memory and thinking skills and progressively worsens
Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative disorder of the nervous system that results in loss of intentional movement and impaired motor functioning
While these GHR tests give consumers information about their genetic risk to a particular disease, they can’t provide information about an individual’s overall risk of developing a disease. That’s because genetic risk factors alone don’t mean a person will definitely develop a disease — other factors, like a person’s particular lifestyle or environment, also play a role.
Lifestyle Factors That Can Improve Your Odds
Just because you have a genetic predisposition a particular disease doesn’t mean it will develop. And while you can’t control your genetics, you can control many of the lifestyle factors that can increase your chances.
Your overall diet, of course, is one of the best things you can do to improve your odds of developing many diseases.
Diets rich in fresh fruits, veggies, lean meats and organic dairy that limit gluten (except in cases of celiac disease, where you should avoid gluten altogether), are important for keeping your body healthy. Avoiding processed foods, artificial sweeteners and added sugars are also key. My Healing Foods Diet is a terrific guide.
The benefits of exercise can’t be overstated, either. Exercise helps strengthen your immune system, keep your brain sharp and increase strength and flexibility, all of which are important in helping your body fight back against disease development or progression.
But there any other lifestyle precautions that you can take to decrease your risk of developing one of these diseases, even if you have an increased genetic risk.
Take ibuprofen. A 2011 study of more than 136,000 healthy men and women over six years found that those who regularly took ibuprofen reduced their risk of developing Parkinson’s disease symptoms by 38 percent. (2) While the study looked at ibuprofen and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs in general, only ibuprofen lowered the risk. I don’t generally recommend NSAIDs because they have their own set of side effects, but if you are predisposed to Parkinson’s, it is especially in your best interest to investigate anti-inflammatory options.
Drink more tea. A recent study found that drinking tea regularly reduced the risk of Alzheimer’s by as much as 86 percent for people already genetically predisposed to the disease. The compounds in tea work to protect the brain while also reducing mental fatigue and increasing memory.
Practice yin yoga and tai chi. For diseases that impact mobility, like Parkinson’s or dystonia, building a tai chi or gentle yoga practice can be effective at helping to maintain strength, mobility and balance. It’s a great way to stay both physically and mentally active as well.
Should You Order a Test?
If you’ve been considering a 23andMe genetic test or something like it, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, is that once you learn information, you can’t “unknow” it, which is why previously, genetic counseling was often part of genetic testing.
If you do get results that show you are genetically predisposed to a disease, it’s a good idea to speak with your doctor about what this means for your health and what you personally should do to minimize your risk of developing the disease.
It’s also important to note that, just because you’re predisposed to a disease doesn’t mean you will ever get it. Similarly, however, even though you might not have tested for any genetic markers for a disease, that doesn’t mean you’re immune from them. That’s why it’s important to pay attention to your health whether or not you opt for genetic testing and no matter what the results might be.
Final Thoughts on 23andMe Genetic Testing
- Genetic testing can be helpful in determining whether or not you have a predisposition to 10 different diseases or conditions.
- These tests will tell you whether you have an increased risk, but cannot determine whether you will definitely develop a disease or not, as lifestyle and environmental factors play a large role in that.
- You can also still develop one of these diseases, even if you don’t have genetic markers for them.
- A healthy diet and regular exercise are some of the most important things you can do to reduce your risk for these diseases.