Tempted to Take a Home DNA Health Test? Read This First

Analizing DNA

We all want to be fit, healthy and happy. And we work hard at it. But could our success or failure be pre-determined by our DNA?

That’s the claim made by companies that sell home DNA test kits for everything from your family history to your ideal diet to your overall health. So we decided to test the testers, buying DNA home test kits from a handful of different companies.

The DNA genealogy test I took was hilariously inaccurate; the heart health test a Dr. Oz viewer took failed to take into account real-life factors like her impeccable diet and exercise habits; and the DNA diet test we had another viewer take gave weight loss advice so generally, it wasn’t worth the money.

Our disappointing results are not isolated. When the Government Accountability Office looked into home DNA tests, it sneakily sent the same woman’s DNA under nine different names and got nine different results, even though the results should have been identical. What was identical was the sales pitch to buy thousands of dollars worth of supplements supposedly customized by DNA, but actually just ordinary vitamins.

Another government agency, The Food and Drug Administration, is so concerned about DNA health tests that it ordered the largest provider, a company called 23andMe to stop offering them.

But new technologies have a way of prevailing in the end. Here are tips to protect yourself while getting the most out of this fast-changing field.

  • Consider waiting. DNA testing is evolving so fast that tests offered five years ago are now laughable and those offered in another five years are bound to be far better.
  • Look for maximum genes tested. Say you want to know your Alzheimer’s risk. There are thousands of genes that play into this. Does the testing company look at all of them or just a few?
  • The database matters. There is no one DNA database that DNA testing companies use. Rather, they have all developed their own and the company is only good as the database of genetic information it is using for comparison purposes. For genealogical testing, if the company has never tested anybody from your country of origin, chances are that country won’t come up in your ancestral results!
  • Interpretations can vary. Even if you choose a company that tests the maximum number of genes, you still don’t know how they interpret the results. These companies rely on medical studies, which can give conflicting viewpoints, and you have no way of knowing which studies they have given more weight.
  • Use DNA testing as a starting point not an ending point. In other words, if your genetic makeup seems to predict bad news, see a doctor for actual physical testing to see if that news holds up in real life. And if it does, use that as motivation to improve habits like diet and exercise, which can cancel out genetic risks.
  • Download your raw data. Choose a DNA testing company that lets you save the raw results of your DNA test rather than just their interpretation of it. That way, you can have your raw data reinterpreted as DNA science progresses. You can do this either with the original company, or try third party sites (like promethease.com), which offer interpretations of raw data from multiple companies.