In the past, parents and grandparents passed down stories about where their ancestors came from. Today, people are using home genetic testing kits to dig up their roots and uncover the secrets locked inside their bodies.
An array of companies market these kits, which retail around $100. You can find them online and even in some drug stores. Once you buy, you swab the inside of your mouth or spit in a tube and mail the results in for testing. In a few weeks, an analysis is available online.
Here are ways people are using the kits, along with some limits of today’s technology. Before buying, it’s important to research which kit on the market might best fit your purposes.
Discover Heritage. DNA samples can be compared against a large library of other samples to determine which ethnicities and historical populations your DNA is most closely related to. However, there is no complete world database of DNA, and the size and variety in DNA test companies’ libraries varies widely. In addition, at this point little DNA has been collected from many minority groups, including American Indians.
Find Family. Several DNA test companies offer to connect people who share pieces of the same DNA, from distant cousins to parents and children. You can build a living family tree with other people related to you who are using the same service. AncestryDNA has the largest database.
Learn Health Risks. Some over-the-counter DNA tests can screen for genetic traits that put you at risk for health conditions such Alzheimer’s, breast cancer or Parkinson’s disease. Right now 23andMe is the only at-home kit approved by the FDA to test for genetic risks.
However, having a trait toward a disease doesn’t mean you’ll get it. Other factors such as environment, family history and lifestyle play major roles. You may even have genetic traits that offset your risk. Scientists are still studying these relationships. Doctors can order the most comprehensive genetic tests available and can help you interpret them.
Think twice before you swab
When you send a sample of your DNA to a company, you’re giving away information about yourself and your relatives.
It’s important to look beyond price point and promises and consider the implications, because the results of over-the-counter genetic tests often aren’t private.
When your doctor runs tests on you, the results are protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which prevents doctors, hospitals and insurance companies from sharing your information with others. Companies that make over-the-counter genetic test kits are not bound by this act.
What happens to your genetic information is up to the rules of the company you ordered from. Potentially, it could be shared or sold to anyone.
The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prohibits employers or health insurance companies from using genetic information to make decisions. The act does not apply to life, disability or long-term care insurance. A big concern is that an individual’s genetic information could be used against that person or their relatives when they seek this kind of insurance.
Pharmaceutical companies also might find your genetic information useful.
However, companies can change their policies, and hacks happen. Know that when you send a piece of yourself away, you no longer control where it will end up.