How To Use Genetic Testing To Improve Your Health

by | Sep 21, 2022 | Health

Just a quick Google and you’ll see tech savvy companies and slick start-ups in South Africa are adding genetic testing to their arsenal at a rapid rate. They promise to exchange a swab of your saliva for bespoke health advice. But can it really improve your life?

We’ve got the deets on everything you need to know about genetic testing, from what sorts of health indicators your personal DNA test will reveal to how to make sure you’re getting the greatest benefit for your buck – and our verdict.

Here are a few ways you can benefit from genetic testing:

1/ It Can Help You Evaluate Your Lifestyle Habits

Dr. Kelly Stewart, a postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, who has published research on consumer reactions to DTC genetic testing knows a thing or two about genetic testing.

“An important thing we can get from genetic tests, in my opinion, is being able to prioritise behaviour change,” she says of the cases where lifestyle changes can make a difference in the likelihood of our developing a disease. She points out that most of us have a long list of goals or aspirations when it comes to our health – an accumulation of abandoned New Year’s resolutions and other ambitious plans to overhaul our exercise or diet habits and get ourselves into better shape.

But for most of us, a big part of the challenge involves deciding which lifestyle changes are most important – and then sticking with them. “Every individual has behaviours that they could change to reduce their disease risk, but changing them all at once is almost certainly a recipe for relapse,” she says.

2/ It Can Help You Make Little Changes for Lasting Results

A better idea: tackling these sorts of lifestyle changes one at a time and maintaining your new behaviour long enough for it to become an entrenched, habitual part of your life.

Research on habit formation from University College London has shown that making small, specific lifestyle changes is, predictably, a lot easier than trying to implement big ones. By identifying your greatest potential health risks, genetic testing can focus your goals – helping you decide which aspects of your life to change first, Stewart says.

3/ It Gives You A Way To Personalise Your Health Care

In some cases, genetic testing could potentially reveal some healthy behaviours that you may want to avoid. Research has linked some genetic variants with an increased risk for atrial fibrillation, and also for an increased risk for sudden cardiac death. Stewart says that people who carry this genetic variant may want to avoid “extreme” endurance exercises such as marathon running.

Dr. Robert Green, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of the Genomes2People Research Program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Broad Institute, agrees that helping you shape your health goals is a big benefit of genetic testing. “If you’re serious about diet or exercise, these products may give you information that can help educate you or guide your choices,” he says.

“People do ask me if they should try these tests, and I mostly tell them, ‘Do your homework’,” says says Dr. Peter Kraft, a cancer researcher and professor of epidemiology at Harvard School of Public Health. “Make sure you know what you’re going to be getting and you understand it.”

What To Keep In Mind When You Do Genetic Testing:

1/ Drastic Changes Don’t Add Up

Some gene researchers say it’s not such a hot idea to use genetic testing as a springboard to make big diet or lifestyle changes – say, cutting out all dairy and whole grains because you tested positive for a gene variant linked with lactose intolerance or celiac disease. “You have to understand that all these test results are coming with a level of uncertainty,” Kraft says. “The sort of science stamp-of-approval these genetic tests convey causes people to put more weight on the data than [they] should have.”

2/ Interpretations Can Vary

There’s a risk that some individuals will put too much stock in their results if they go into the testing looking for proof of an ailment or limitation. For example, maybe you’ve noticed some joint pain or stomach discomfort, and your genetic test turns up some variants associated with arthritis or a gut disorder. It would be easy to connect the dots, and to make lifestyle changes as though a doctor had diagnosed you with one of those conditions. But that’s not the right way to use these tests. “These tests are not designed to make diagnoses,” says Allison Cirino, a researcher and licensed genetic counselor at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital Cardiovascular Genetics Centre. It’s important to keep that in mind until a doctor confirms any suspicions you may have.

What We Thought Of Genetic Testing:

WH Managing Editor, Kelleigh Korevaar, did Optiphi’s Helix DNA test and got schooled on her health. Here’s what she had to say:

‘The process was really easy and super user-friendly. I swabbed my mouth, using the swab provided and filled in my details and then a courier came to collect my sample. Pretty soon, I received my results and a meeting request with a geneticist to go over my test results.

I scanned my results but waited for my appointment to find out all the info I could. My assigned geneticist, Khilona, took me through everything and reassured me when I had worries over some health results. Of course, no one wants to hear their bone health or inflammation is an area that flagged in their results. That’s why it’s so important to have a professional take you through, because when you’re looking through everything it can be overwhelming.

Overall, the information I got from the tests was eye opening and helpful. You can’t focus your attention on being 100% perfect at everything, but with more information about your DNA, you can work smart, not hard.

For example, insulin sensitivity, bone health and inflammation came up as areas of potential “concern” so I’m going to focus on taking supplements and making lifestyle changes to account for that. Whereas, cardiovascular disease risk and mood disorders didn’t come up, so I know I’m not going to focus on those areas so much.

I loved the information I got about diet (I was advised to commit to a low-fat/Mediterranean diet), exercise and skin. And interestingly, my DNA confirmed a lot of what I already believed, so I’ve used it as confirmation of habits or a nudge in the right direction.

My verdict: While I wouldn’t use a DNA test to try to overhaul my life, it gave me great insight into areas I might want to focus my attention and how I could potentially achieve the greatest results with less effort. Over the last few months, I’ve applied a lot of what I learnt through small changes that have had big results.’

Want to find out more? Head to Optiphi to see the DNA tests you can get.

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