FINDING YOUR UNIQUE SELF ... THROUGH THE DATA: Today's Home Tests Can Tell You about Your Heritage, Cancer risks/STIs and Overall Health

By Anderson-Minshall, Jacob | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), October-November 2018 | Go to article overview

FINDING YOUR UNIQUE SELF ... THROUGH THE DATA: Today's Home Tests Can Tell You about Your Heritage, Cancer risks/STIs and Overall Health


Anderson-Minshall, Jacob, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


I turned 50 last year, and in doing so I've become increasingly aware of my own mortality. Unfortunately, it doesn't make me more eager to see a doctor or undergo certain screening tests, especially knowing I have a concerning familial history. My grandma had both breast cancer and Alzheimer's, my sister skin cancer, and a decade ago a cousin died suddenly from a rare form of hereditary cancer (she was gone within six months of being diagnosed). My father found pre-cancerous polyps in a colon screening, meaning I've had to face more frequent colonoscopies.

I've become increasingly interested in at-home testing options, especially those that could alert me to genetic risks for certain diseases. You can now mine your genome for clues about long-term health. You can also avoid going to a clinic, yet check yourself for sexually transmitted infections. It's undeniably simple.

You order a kit online, it arrives in a box with easy to follow instructions. All it takes is a little spit in a tube, a swab of your junk, or the prick of a finger, then you ship the sample to a lab in the pre-paid box. Within a few weeks, you get a notice in your email letting you know your results are ready. And all you have to do is log in and see your results. Here's a run-down of some of the top at-home health tests.

HOME GENETIC-TESTING KITS

There are a growing number of companies (including Thermo Fisher Scientific, AncestryDNA, and Vitagene) offering DNA testing to reveal aspects about your health. I tried 23andMe (23andMe.com)'s Health and Ancestry kit ($139), which provides an overview of your ancestry, indicates whether you are genetically predisposed for certain medical conditions, and reveals if you're a "carrier" of others that you might worry about passing down to your children.

23andMe's mission is to "empower everyone to understand the genome and what it means for each of us." In pursuing that goal, the company provides reams of information and disclaimers reminding you that these tests only tell you if you have certain genetic risks. Keep in mind, the results won't reveal whether you will or won't get a medical condition, nor can it determine whether you will or won't get cancer, for example, since most cancers are due not to your genetic makeup but to environmental and lifestyle factors, as well as random mutations.

Turns out, my personal genome is pretty boring--a good thing when talking about health conditions. But it is admittedly disappointing when talking of ancestry. Being 100 percent European (primarily British/Irish/German), I basically couldn't be any whiter. There was a single Eastern European relative back in the 1700s, which makes sense but is at odds with my father's oral family history. They trace their German heritage back to Russia, during the reign of Catherine the Great, who recruited Germans to settle and farm sections of Russia. After her reign ended, these German-Russians were persecuted, and many were exiled to Siberia (my lineage escaped to America). German-Russians kept to themselves, and supposedly didn't intermingle with the locals--except, of course, that rare Russian playing footsy with one of my ancestors.

The most exotic element of my ancestry is that I have more Neanderthal variants than 67 percent of 23andMe customers (it still accounts for less than four percent of my overall DNA). I think that actually makes me more native European, since Neanderthals were the first to settle in Western Europe and only later were supplanted by early humans. The genetic test traces my maternal line to ancestors who "migrated into Europe from the Middle East as the Ice Age receded between 14,000 and 11,000 years ago."

Although the ancestry information is admittedly fascinating, I went to 23andMe to check my DNA for things like Parkinson's and celiac disease. The one increased risk--a marker for an increased risk of developing late-stage Alzheimer's--I was already aware of, since my grandma suffered from the disease and it has a hereditary component. …

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