Since the discovery of DNA and the double helix in 1953 and the successful completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, the field of genetics has expanded even further thanks to at-home genetic tests such as 23andMe.
Ever since 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry Personal Genetic Service was approved by the FDA in 2015, millions of people around the world have purchased these kits, which cost between $99 and $199 depending on which features are included. Customers mail saliva samples for testing in the lab to learn more about:
- their family history,
- and maybe even their risk for certain health conditions.
By using my referral link, you’ll receive at least 10% off any kits you purchase from 23andme. If there is a larger sale on at the time of your purchase, you’ll get that larger discount instead.
You never miss out by purchasing through my link.
Before you click that purchase button, however, there are a few important things everyone should know about what you can—and can’t—learn from this test.
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Table of Contents
1. You can opt out of certain test results
Even if you send in your saliva for 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry service, that doesn’t mean you have to look at your results for every genetic variant. The Genetic Health Risk reports can tell you if you carry genetic markers that increase risk for breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, or Parkinson’s disease—but you can also choose not to access any or all of those reports if you’d rather not know.
Reports that don’t have an opt-out option include genetic information associated with higher risk for Celiac disease, age-related macular degeneration, and other rare hereditary conditions that may cause health problems later in life. You’ll also get a wellness report that indicates how your genes may play a role in your height, weight, muscle mass, the likelihood of being lactose intolerant, and more.
2. Your results don’t mean you will (or won’t) get a disease
It might be a relief to learn that you don’t carry any of the variants 23andMe tests for that are known to increase the risk of certain diseases. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get sick one day: lifestyle factors, environment, and other genes can still play a role.
These tests are only looking at specific genes, and those genes only account for a tiny portion of people who have these disorders.
23andMe is pretty explicit in stating this fact in their results, but not everyone who participates in 23andMe is going to take the time to read those disclaimers – or perhaps even their entire report.
Similarly, learning that you do have a genetic predisposition to a condition like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease may not do you much good for two reasons.
- First, there’s still no guarantee you’ll develop the disease,
- And second, there may not be much you can do about it.
The exception to that is learning whether you have a BRCA mutation. The BRCA mutation puts you at increased risk for breast and ovarian cancer but knowing you have it can provide an opportunity to actually do something preventative, such as more frequent testing or even prophylactic surgeries. The information can be used for genetic counseling and if something is found, then it can be treated earlier.
3. It could affect your plans for having children
23andMe’s test can also tell you if you’re a carrier for more than 40 genetic disorders, which means you carry one genetic variant for a condition such as cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, or hereditary hearing loss. If you’re a carrier, you could potentially pass that variant down to your children.
If you and your partner are both carriers for the same disorder, there’s a 25% chance you could have a child born with that condition. 23andMe makes this clear, as well: “Understanding your carrier status helps you work with your doctor to prepare for the health of your future family,” the company’s website states.
4. The test’s ancestry tools aren’t complete, and they’re not 100% accurate
When 23andMe began issuing Ancestry reports, it compared customer’s DNA to 31 different ancient populations. Earlier this year, the company released an update that added another layer—and data from another 120 regions around the globe—to help give customers a more accurate idea of their more recent ancestors.
That’s a huge improvement but the company’s ancestry data still isn’t complete. There is an incredible number of genetic variations already known for Northern Europeans and Eastern Europeans, and so results in regards to those regions are going to be pretty accurate. But in other populations, there have been fewer people studied and that means there’s more of a tendency for error.
Don’t worry though, they keep updating it and fine-tuning their Ancestry reports even after you receive your initial results.
Also, women who get tested will receive slightly incomplete ancestral analyses, because males inherit certain genetic material—called haplogroups—from both their fathers (through their Y chromosome) and mothers (through mitochondrial DNA), while women only inherit it from their mothers. Thankfully, 23andMe says the “vast majority” of its ancestry features are based on autosomal DNA. Autosomal DNA is passed on from both parents to both male and female offspring.
5. You may discover new relatives
As part of your genetic report, you have the option to participate in a tool called DNA Relatives. This tool allows you to connect with other people who have used the service and share your familial DNA.
Even before opting into this additional service, your report can tell you how many close relatives (like siblings, parents, grandparents, and first cousins) are in 23andMe’s database, as well as how many more distant relatives. It can also tell you where these relatives are located around the country and the world.
As you may or may not yet know, I run another blog about cybersecurity (you can check it out at theWhiteHatHACKER), so you know security and privacy are valuable to me. Sending in a DNA sample and being stored in a database might sound unsafe, but here’s something you should know about 23andMe:
6. You can choose how the company stores and uses your data
As a 23andMe customer, you can decide whether or not the company should store your saliva sample or destroy it after analysis. You can also decide whether you want your account to be visible to other 23andMe members and if you want to participate in a tool that connects you with relatives based on your DNA similarities. You can also change these settings at any time.
It’s also important to know that 23andMe does not sell, lease, or rent any identifiable information at the individual level. The company does, however, share aggregated customer data (stripped of people’s names, contact information, and personal details) with third parties “in order to perform business development, initiate research, send you marketing emails and improve our services.”
23andMe also offers customers the opportunity to participate in scientific research, both at home and online. Participation is voluntary, and choosing not to do so won’t impact your analysis the results you get out of the service.
7. You can choose how much information you make public to other users
Activating the DNA Relatives tool is optional but it means sharing your profile picture, your name or initials, and some of your report results with your genetic relatives. In case you haven’t already read my cybersecurity posts on TheWhiteHatHacker.com, keep in mind that the more personally identifying information you put out into the world, the more danger your privacy and security face.
8. You can find out information you may not have wanted to know
By using a test such as this one, you may be putting yourself at risk for finding out information you’d rather not know. This may include finding out:
- You’re not related to the people you thought you were
- You are related to people you didn’t know you were related to
- You’re at risk for certain disorders (or a carrier)
Remember that you can set options to limit that last one, but these things should always be a consideration.
At the end of the day, 23andme should be fun
9. Not all the results are super-serious
Along with ancestry and genetic health risk, your 23andMe report can give you fun insights into how your DNA may affect your physical and personality traits. For example, it can tell you if you have genetic variants that make you more likely to:
- be a vegetarian,
- drink a lot of coffee,
- be a sound sleeper,
- have frizzy hair,
- have two different sized feet
Recently, 23andMe even started testing for genetic variants for the ability to match musical pitch!
Test results can also tell if a person has higher-than-average odds of disliking cilantro or flushing when they drink alcohol.
Have you done a 23andMe test?
Did you like what you found out? And if you haven’t yet, do you think you ever will?
Let me know below!
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With all my love,
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