Testing out at-home genetic tests

Posted at 9:45 PM, May 29, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-29 22:55:14-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - At-home DNA testing kits are popular right now, with many people wanting to dig into their family history, but also to find out more about their health.  But how accurate are those tests?

We followed one family through the testing process to find out how they work and what you can learn.

The tests were once used as "heritage detectors" but some claim that genetic markers can tell you if you are prone to certain diseases.  Some genetic experts caution you from taking all this too seriously.

FOX 17 followed a family of three generations of women through the testing with 23 & Me.  They say they are always looking out for each other's health and well-being.

The test claims that a saliva sample can tell you more about your genes than you could have ever imagined. It takes just a few weeks to the get the results.  Dr. Caleb Bupp, who works in medical genetics for Spectrum Health says the tests look for genetic differences and make generalizations. It doesn't look for mutations.

"23 & Me doesn't look for mutations," says Dr. Bupp. "It looks for something called polymorphisms, which are just normal variations in the population, not actually things that can cause disease."

He says that means the test results aren't specific enough that it should dictate a person's medical outlook on life.  The most common test results show "slightly increased risk" for a health problem, which doesn't mean the same thing for everyone.

"So the analogy that I use sometimes is like a cliff," explains Dr. Bupp. "So, if a medical concern is falling off of a cliff, we are all born somewhere away from that cliff. Some people are born right at the edge and it just takes a little bit of something for them to have that medical issue."

Others, explains Dr. Bupp, like Keith Richards, can live rough lives and still not get that health concern.

A big selling point for the tests is they claim that they can determine your risk for breast and ovarian cancer.  The American College of Medical Genetics and Genomics says these kits only test for a handful of mutations, leaving so many undetected.

Still, our family was excited to see their results.  With the exception of a couple "slightly increased risks" for celiac disease and loss of vision with age, these three women had no red flags on their results.

Though it was a relief for these women, it is important to remember that these tests don't give you a complete look at your risk for diseases.

Also, keep in mind that when you take these tests, your genetic information can be stored by the company and may be used for pharmaceutical research.  Dr. Bupp says you should consult a genetic counselor before taking one of these tests.