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Peering Into The Future of Health

Jul 09, 2018 12:00AM

By Kelsey Casselbury

Is the ability to know if you’re at a higher risk of certain diseases, such as cancer or Alzheimer’s, a powerful tool for keeping yourself healthy, or is it a drain on a happy life as you wonder where and when illness might strike? It certainly depends on whom you ask, but one thing is for sure—the ability to test for genetic markers for diseases is more prevalent and more powerful than ever. 

At first glance, it seems super-easy—you spit into a tube, or you have a bit of blood drawn, and it gets sent away to a lab for testing. The biology of it all is easy to grasp, but for some, the emotional aspect of being told that there’s a genetic marker for a debilitating disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s is too much to bear. While multiple types of genetic tests are out there, let’s focus on two of the more common types: At-home genetic testing and genetic testing via a healthcare professional.

At-Home Genetic Testing

As DNA tests for ancestry purposes become more routine, it was only a matter of time before testing for diseases became an option. Check your samples for risks of certain diseases, as well as if you’re a carrier of genetic variations that could be passed down to any children. Genetic testing company 23andMe shook up the industry in March, when it became the first direct-to-consumer company to have an FDA-approved test for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which are linked to increase risk for breast, ovarian, and prostate cancers. Previously, that kind of testing was only available via a healthcare provider. 

The advantages of at-home testing are apparent—you don’t have to involve any doctor’s visits, no one else gets to weigh in on what tests they think you do or don’t need, and the results don’t become part of your medical record. However, experts worry that the at-home tests only provide partial or somewhat inconclusive results. Without a professional around to help you interpret what you’re seeing, there could be a lot of confusion about your health.

In-Office Genetic Testing

Many medical professionals believe that genetic testing should only be done when there’s an indication for it—for example, a family history of a hereditary disease. These tests can go a lot deeper into genetic markers and look at the risk of diseases such as melanoma, lung cancer, ovarian cancer and several more diseases that many people haven’t heard of—there are more than 1,000 genetic tests in use right now, according to the National Library of Medicine. 

One clear benefit is that there’s a chance that insurance may cover genetic testing if a doctor recommends it. However, there’s a risk that the results could affect a person’s healthcare coverage. Additionally, you have medical support before and after testing to be sure that you understand the results and how it will affect your health in the future. Whether you choose an at-home genetic test or you decide to talk to your doctor about it, consider carefully the information you might discover and how it could affect your well-being. 

What is Genetic Discrimination?

With genetic testing on the rise, it has become important for people to be protected against discrimination because of their DNA. A federal law known as the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) is designed to protect people from genetic discrimination because they have a gene mutation that can cause or increase the risk of a disease. 

Title I of GINA prohibits genetic discrimination in health insurance, making it illegal for providers to use or require genetic information to determine coverage. Title II prohibits genetic discrimination from an employer in hiring, promotions or other employment decisions.

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