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The Girlfriend's Guide To Genetic Testing

Wanting to take an at-home DNA test? What you need to know first.

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animation of ladies fishing from genetic testing tubes
Ellen Porteus
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It’s safe to say that by now you’ve probably seen an ad on TV for at-home DNA genetic testing kits. They’re the cheerful commercials that make having your genetic code decoded seem both simple and desirable, because who doesn’t want to know what and where they came from, and what they’re really made of?

First of all, how is it we live in a day and age where a person can spit in a test tube, ship it to a lab, and several weeks later receive a report that gives in-depth details about their health, ancestry and genetic traits? And why isn’t everyone doing this?

Before you jump on the ancestry-test bandwagon — with eager hopes of finally having an explanation for why you don’t require much sleep (or why you do), and what percentage Italian you may be (and does it explain your penchant for balsamic vinegar?) — there are a few very important things you need to know.

What it can tell you about your health

From at-home tests that do not require a physician’s orders (like 23 and Me and AncestryDNA, for example), what you’ll be able to learn about your health in particular can be limited. While the predisposition aspect of the test is able to detect genetic variations and risks that could influence your chances for developing a certain disease like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will. There are many other factors involved that cannot be tested for. However, you will be able to learn if you are a carrier of a particular disease like sickle cell, Tay-Sachs or cystic fibrosis (just to name a few for which you will be screened) that could be of interest for those in their childbearing years. It’s important to follow up with a genetic counselor if you are a carrier.

What it doesn’t tell you about your health

Since consumer at-home DNA testing products are testing a small portion of your DNA panel, you’ll be receiving only a small amount of genetic interpretations, compared with the results you’d be able to get through a more in-depth analysis from your physician. These tests are unable to tell you if you have disease-related genes like MTHFR (high risk for many health conditions) or the BRCA1 gene (breast cancer type 1 susceptibility), and they are not analyzing hormone levels and other diagnostic panels. For those and other more comprehensive gene-related health conditions, consult your physician.

What about your ethnic origins and traits?

Finding out where you came from is perhaps the biggest draw to home DNA tests, and since your genetic code is your most personal identifier, this part of your report can be the most interesting. Your results will include a report that tells you what DNA you inherited from both sides of your family, and the proportion of your DNA that comes from each of 45 worldwide genetic populations. It will also compare your DNA with individuals of known ancestry from over 115 countries and territories in Europe, Africa, the Americas, Asia and Oceania, so you’ll know how much percent of a particular ethnicity you are. As far as traits go (think appearance and senses), your report will tell you the version of a trait you most likely inherited, from eye color to taste preferences to hairlines.

Is your genetic information kept confidential and safe?

In a word, NO (at least not 100 percent), because while these companies profess your information will be safe and kept private, there is no full guarantee that the stored digital content, reports and even your genetic code cannot be compromised with a single computer hack. For legal concerns, and the possible release of your information to law enforcement, by law your DNA results cannot be released without a valid court order or subpoena. Some companies will also give you the option to have your information kept public in a “familial” database, so to speak, meaning a long-lost relative may now have the ability to find you when looking for people with similar DNA. As for each company’s terms and conditions, it’s imperative you read ALL OF THEM, and understand that while you may agree with them now, they’re always subject to change. Finally, find out whether you can have the testing company destroy your sample after your test is complete, as well as if your information is being sold to a biotech research company with or without your knowledge and consent.

Are the labs they use trustworthy and accredited?

Make sure the lab that is processing and analyzing your DNA has received one of the following certifications: Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA); College of American Pathologists (CAP); or AABB. This information should be readily available on the company’s website.