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Should You Rely on an At-Home Genetic Test for Alzheimer’s?

Sherry Christiansen
By Sherry ChristiansenJune 1, 2018
Should You Rely on an At-Home Genetic Test for Alzheimer's?

There are several variations of affordable at-home genetic tests available these days, many of which have gained popularity, particularly for those who are interested in their future health and longevity. However, it’s vital to learn more about what these tests can and cannot do when it comes to predicting the likeliness of diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

How reliable are these tests and is there any gain in finding out you’re predisposed to develop a disease? Read more.

At-Home Genetic Tests

There are personal accounts of people who have taken at-home genetic tests and received less than optimal results; one such story is about a woman who found she was predisposed to Alzheimer’s disease.

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The New York Times recently published the story of Julie Gregory, 49, who paid for a genetic test from a service claiming to specialize in sequencing genes. Gregory states that was hoping she could learn more about some symptoms she was having related to deviations in blood sugar levels and poor circulation. Much to her dismay, she discovered something far more disturbing.

Instead of learning about a genetic link to her blood sugar issues, Gregory discovered she had a genetic predisposition for Alzheimer’s: two copies of the apoE4 gene variant that leads to the disease.

The New York Times reports that the information Gregory had uncovered was a “time bomb hidden in her DNA.” Gregory says of the experience, “Alzheimer’s was the furthest thing from my mind… I never thought I was at risk. When I saw my results, I was terrified.”

Grappling with an impending disease like Alzheimer’s years before a person is ill is what health care providers, such as Dr. Isaacson, director of the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medicine’s Neurology Department in New York, hopes to avoid. “Implementing prevention measures early-on may be a better option than genetic testing,” states Dr. Isaacson. While genetic testing predicts risk, it certainly does not diagnose whether dangerous plaques or other symptoms of Alzheimer’s already exist in the brain.

What an At-Home Genetic Test for Alzheimer’s Cannot Do

There are many limitations when it comes to an at-home genetic test for Alzheimer’s:

  1. Even if some genetic mutations are linked to a specific disease, it may be uncertain as to whether other contributing factors (such as inflammation, obesity or others) would need to be present, before the disease would occur.
  2. Having genes like the ApoE4 gene does not necessarily lead to the development of Alzheimer’s, it simply indicates a risk for a specific condition. The FDA has limited consumer testing kits to be able to test only for genetic variants with strong evidence linked to diseases due to this uncertainty.
  3. If a genetic test does not reveal a genetic variant for a disease (such as Alzheimer’s) it also does not mean that a person won’t get the condition.
  4. It’s not possible to reveal everything about your genes as there are three billion base pairs in a person’s entire DNA. Testing usually focuses on only a few areas where strong information is available about what specific genetic variations mean.
  5. You won’t be able to learn about having the predisposition for some diseases, like cancer or heart disease — these diseases are very complex and cannot be traced to a single aberration in DNA.

“We are in a steep curve of learning about the genome now,” says Michael Watson, executive director of the American College of Medical Genetics. “We’re hampered by not having a lot of data on a lot of different populations and conditions.”

The medical field is also on the verge of creating a blood test to detect the earliest signs of Alzheimer’s in people in their 40s and 50s, with no obvious signs or symptoms. The cost of diagnostic tools that can identify the presence of Alzheimer’s today is approximately $4,000.00 and medical insurance providers refuse to pay for screening.

In the future, effective means of blood testing could be affordable and reveal whether millions of people have “pre-Alzheimer’s.” Unlike a genetic test (which only identifies risk for the disease) blood testing would allow for very early intervention and treatment — which many experts believe is the most effective strategy for staving off symptoms.

Have you taken an at-home genetic test for Alzheimer’s or another disease? What did you find? We’d like to hear more about your experiences with genetic testing in the comments below.

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Sherry Christiansen
Sherry Christiansen

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