(December 20, 2013) Hear the audio version

I was still in my jammies one morning in September when I received a chirpy “Your 23andMe Results Are Ready!” email from the Mountain View personal genetic testing company. A couple of clicks and password led me to a chart showing health risks identified by the spit test I’d sent in. Scanning quickly, I saw that I had more than three times the risk of developing celiac disease. No surprise there, as my daughter has it and I already knew I’d given her the gene. The report said I’m also at risk for other autoimmune diseases. I knew that too.

What set my heart racing was the Alzheimer’s Disease risk line. Did I really want to see that result? 23andMe asked.

Huh. My husband didn’t get that prompt.

Did I? Why, Pandora, I asked myself, would you have paid $99 if you did not want to open the box? I know you’d hoped to find out you didn’t have an Alzheimer’s gene. Now what are you going to do?

Of course I kept going. The next page looked like a terms-of-service agreement, and I read it just about as carefully before agreeing. Turns out I do have one copy of the APOE4 variant, which is “associated with an increased risk of Alzheimer’s.”


Was I the sort of person the FDA was thinking about when, two months later, it sent a warning letter to 23andMe ordering it to discontinue marketing DNA test kits because they’re medical devices? That saliva kit certainly led to medical results that I still can’t decide I’m glad to know. Through my own research, I learned I can substantially lower my risk of developing Alzheimer’s by exercising. So I’m even more diligent about taking brisk walks in the foothills and going to the gym twice a week for resistance training. But would I have benefitted from an across-the-table genetic counselor? You bet. My $99 didn’t cover that. If we’re going to be the genetic pioneers 23andMe says we are, it’s important to remember that the 21st century wilderness can be overwhelming, calling for more than a simple Internet connection.

With a Perspective, I’m Debbie Duncan.

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