When I decided to take an ancestry test to help me build out my family tree, I learned about 23 & Me’s (one of the leading DNA services) Wellness Report, which offers up genetic health risks, wellness information, and carrier statuses for certain diseases.
I’ll be totally honest: The thought of uncovering my potential health risks absolutely drove me to despair. If you could have a crystal ball with which to see the future—only the future was possibly filled with disease, pain, and possible early death would you look? I figured, with most people in my family dying from cancer or heart disease, the outlook couldn’t be good. But then again, maybe they could have prevented or better fought against certain health issues with the knowledge afforded to me now.
I vacillated around the idea of finding out what sort of abnormalities were hiding in my DNA. I went to order the test. I clicked out. I went back in a few days later. And I clicked out yet again right before pulling out my credit card. I just couldn’t reconcile wielding that sort of power over my existence; I wanted to just live my life and do what I could to stay fit, healthy, and happy. And ignorant.
The thought of uncovering my potential health risks absolutely drove me to despair.
So, instead of buying the Wellness Report, I went ahead and got my ancestry done. Innocently enough, I found out I had more Neanderthal DNA than 98 percent of 23 & Me users. (Yes, I absolutely googled, “What does it mean to have more Neanderthal DNA?” Answer: Found in Europe and Asia, they had bigger brains and muscles. Score). I also learned that my family heritage was much more global than I thought; in fact, I was able to build out my maternal line back to the 1600s with this information.
One day, though, a friend asked me if I’d uploaded my DNA results’ raw data (which is the un-interpreted data and which is also downloadable, for free, whenever you get an ancestry test with some of the brand-name services) to something called Promethease.
Promethease. “Sounds daunting,” I said. “What is it?”
“It offers you a DNA-based report on your health,” my friend said. “I used it because my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 50, and I wanted to know if it’s a high risk for me.”
I was taken aback by her attitude; was she not scared of knowing her own fate? Or, was she taking advantage of something that people, for thousands of years, couldn’t have even dreamed up?
How Do DNA Health Tests Work?
Ready for a science lesson? (You won’t be tested on this later, promise).
Promethease is basically a huge database that builds a personalized DNA report based on your DNA genotypes (part of your DNA that determines characteristics). The information based on those genotypes is linked to scientific findings at SNPedia, another database of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs).
According to 23 & Me, “SNPs can generate biological variation between people by causing differences in the recipes for proteins that are written in genes. Those differences can in turn influence a variety of traits such as appearance, disease susceptibility or response to drugs.”
So, where do SNPs come from?
23 & Me explains: “Cells sometimes make mistakes during the copying process, kind of like typos. These typos lead to variations in the DNA sequence at particular locations.” And those locations are called SNPs (or “snips”).
Whether you use Promethease or another DNA wellness service, these SNPs are the driving force.
Getting My Report
After my Neanderthal percentage novelty disappeared, I thought about getting the health test. I rationalized it like this: I could be afraid of the unknown or I could seize what little control I have over it and use it to my benefit. It seems, if we have knowledge, we should apply it, right?
I decided to take the plunge so that I could tell my doctor about anything I saw that screamed, “Death imminent!”
My report from Promethease cost $5, which, if you think about it, is a small price to pay to have some power over the mystery of the human body.
I could be afraid of the unknown or I could seize what little control I have over it and use it to my benefit.
The great thing about companies like Promethease (others include DNAFit, Genomic Express, LiveWello among others) is that they allow people to take health into their own hands. And besides masochists like myself, biomedical researchers and healthcare practitioners also use Promethease, which means that uploading your data adds to important research efforts.
I was thrown by the results of my report.
Once I connected my 23 & Me data to the Promethease site, it took about 10 minutes to receive my report. And sure enough, it appeared accurate. I could see some of the health issues I’ve been diagnosed with, like Ankylosing Spondylitis, on the report, and I could also see some of the stuff I hadn’t known about.
I have to admit that it took a few minutes for my heart to stop beating; it’s like opening Pandora’s Box for the first time. I came away with information around which cancers and diseases I’m at risk for, which drugs I can’t metabolize, and—very helpfully—how I might best lose weight. A lot of it synced up to what I’d seen family members be diagnosed with.
My report also made fitness suggestions: It said that I’m part of a population of people who can only lose weight through vigorous workout regimes (not necessarily through diet only). I’m predisposed to obesity, it said (true) and low-fat diets work best in my favor (thanks for that; no wonder cutting carbs hasn’t worked).
Wild card: My DNA suggested that I have a ‘lack of empathy.” At first, I thought, how could this be? Isn’t empathy learned? However, its explanation is pretty scientific: “You have a SNP in the oxytocin receptor which may make you less empathetic than most people. When under stress you may have more difficulty recognizing the emotional state of others which impacts loneliness, parenting, and socializing skills.” I found that level of information absolutely fascinating (if not a bit scary to admit publicly).
It took a few minutes for my heart to stop beating; it’s like opening Pandora’s Box for the first time.
Because the report was able to pinpoint my exact autoimmune disorder, hair color (dark), ethnicity (Eurasian), and skin color (light), it seemed that at least some of the information was worth considering and talking to my doctor about.
However, it should be noted that not everything will be accurate, and that misinterpretation of the data can (and does) happen. The information is complex, so you should always talk to a doctor as well.
In the end, I’m armed with a lot of knowledge: I know which drugs I may react badly to, I can better tailor my diet to my fitness goals, and I know that I need to keep an eye on certain health risks.
And while I feel empowered, I also feel scared of what may come. For this reason, I don’t explicitly suggest or suggest against anyone downloading or buying a report; it’s a personal thing and the decision isn’t one you should take lightly.