Should We Fear Genetic Testing?

Though the prospect of learning about our DNA might seem wrapped in mystery and intrigue, genetic information is not so different from any other metrics we know about ourselves: Our age, our weight, our blood pressure. With a little scrutiny, any of these numbers can tell us something about our health and ourselves. It’s the same with a genetic scan – it gives us some perspective on our health, though far from the complete picture. It is, in other words, a place to start thinking about how we’re living our lives.

It’s important to remember, though, that genetics is a very new science, and that getting a scan today is the equivalent of buying the first generation iPod – it’s a work in progress, and will get much better as time goes on. There’s a lot that science doesn’t know yet about the exact influence of DNA on our health, and the journey is part of the ride. But it’s a rare opportunity, unprecedented, perhaps, in history, that the general public might be granted unfettered access to experience science as it happens. It’s not something that everyone will be comfortable with, but we shouldn’t underestimate how profound this opportunity is.

So when it comes to choosing a service, beware the hype – and use the same sort of common sense that we use as consumers apply when we choose a bank, a cell-phone provider, or a grocery store. Those companies that promise to give definitive insight into the future, the “if your kids have this gene they’ll be Olympic athletes” sort of promises, are overpromising and exaggerating what science actually knows. They may act as if our DNA was a crystal ball, but the fact is, it’s not: while our DNA has a large influence in our health, it is largely just that – an influence, along with all sorts of other factors like our diet, our environment, and other behavioral factors. Our health, in other words, is an equation where our DNA is just one factor, one input. The legitimate services understand this, and make this clear. Indeed, it’s a selling point for them: the fact that we can respond to our DNA, that we can actually use it to inform the way we live our lives, is part of the rare opportunity we’re being granted. Rather than fear this opportunity, we should consider it as straightforward as any risk we’re alerted to in life.

The fact that DNA is not destiny is, to me, a reason to consider getting a scan: understanding that we can act in response to our DNA, that we can change our lives to minimize the predispositions that our genes may create, should be a source of empowerment and reassurance. Our DNA is just the blueprint for our lives and our health. How much we choose to follow the plans or tweak along the way is up to us.

To me, the role of DNA in our health is no different for most people than any other blood test result or risk factor – it’s a best guess, a probability that we can choose to heed, or can choose to ignore. Medicine is always a numbers game – it’s usually just cloaked in the white-coat authority of a physician.

For those of us who want to get a head start on health, who want to live with a little more purpose and precision, then a DNA scan is a great place to start.

Thomas Goetz is the author of “The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Age of Personalized Medicine”. The executive editor at Wired Magazine, you can follow him on Twitter and on his blog, The Decision Tree.

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