Is Genetic Testing for You?
Editor’s note: Genetic testing can be a frightening, expensive prospect – and it can also help you. How should you decide? Here, experts from the SeniorHealth division of the National Institutes of Health tell you what you need to know about this crucial choice.
In a genetic test, a small sample of blood, saliva, or tissue is taken to examine a person’s genes. Sometimes, genetic testing can detect diseases that may be preventable or treatable. This type of testing is available for thousands of conditions.
Depending on the tests, a procedure can help to
identify gene changes that are responsible for an already diagnosed disease
determine the severity of a disease
guide doctors in deciding on the best medicine or treatment
identify gene changes that may increase the risk to develop a disease
identify gene changes that could be passed on to children
screen newborn babies for certain treatable conditions.
However, genetic testing cannot tell you everything about inherited diseases. A positive result does not always mean you will develop a disease, and, if you do, it is hard to predict how severe the symptoms may be. Geneticists, genetic counselors, and genetic nurses can provide more details about what a particular test will or will not tell you, and can help you decide whether to undergo testing.
If you’re considering genetic testing, you should know the benefits and drawbacks. Testing can be helpful whether the test identifies a mutation or not. Test results can also:
serve as a relief, eliminating some of the uncertainty about a health condition
help doctors make recommendations for treatment or monitoring
give people information to use in making decisions about their and their family’s health
help people take steps to lower the chance of developing a disease through, for example, earlier and more frequent screening or changes in diet and exercise habits
help people make informed choices about their future, such as whether to have a baby.
As for the down side, finding out your test results can affect you emotionally. Learning that you are someone in your family has or is at risk for a disease can be scary. Some people can also feel guilty, angry, anxious, or depressed when they find out their results.
Covering the costs of testing can also be a challenge. Genetic testing can cost anywhere from less than $100 to more than $2,000. Health insurance companies may cover part or all of the cost of testing.
However, genetic testing cannot tell you everything about inherited diseases. For example, a positive result does not always mean you will develop a disease, and it is hard to predict how severe symptoms may be. Geneticists and genetic counselors can talk more specifically about what a particular test will or will not tell you, and can help you decide whether to undergo testing.
Many people are worried about discrimination based on their genetic test results. In 2008, Congress enacted the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) to protect people from discrimination by their health insurance provider or employer. GINA does not apply to long-term care, disability, or life insurance providers.
For more information about genetic discrimination and GINA, see The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008.
Adapted from the SeniorHealth division of the National Institutes of Health. For more information on senior health issues, visit http://nihseniorhealth.gov.