What does a DNA test can really tell you?
There are numerous genetic tests available to people at the clinical and consumer level. They could be a saliva swab, hair sample, or a blood test to allow doctors, scientists, and individuals to look closely at a person's DNA for variations/mutations that are linked to particular traits or conditions.
How genetic tests can help
According to the National Institutes of Health, genetic tests (at the clinical level) can be used to identify 2,000 hereditary diseases and conditions. Some examples of common hereditary diseases that these tests might find include cystic fibrosis, familial hyperlipidemia, and muscular dystrophy.
One of the benefits of these types of genetic tests is that they allow doctors to detect hereditary diseases at every stage of life, or, if doctors are able to identify the disease before symptoms progress, they can help patients plan for managing the condition.Catching these types of diseases during their early stages means a patient will possibly have more options for treating the disease.
Presymptomatic genetic tests may tell you whether you're going to eventually develop a disease you don't actually have yet
When a healthy person with no symptoms has a documented family history of a disease, such as diabetes, genetic tests can analyze specific markers in their genes that are related to that disease and doctors may then use this information to predict whether that person is at risk of developing the condition.
But when it comes to diseases that involve multiple mutations, occurring in one or a few genes, determining a person's risk is a little more complex because some conditions aren't just caused by changes in a single gene, but rather, a whole range of changes across, potentially, multiple genes.
Genetic testing can be useful by allowing doctors to analyze the different types of gene changes to give them an idea of whether someone will get a disease, how bad it will be, and perhaps insights on potential treatments.
A carrier test can tell you if your DNA contains a mutation for a genetic disorder that might affect your unborn child
Being a carrier basically means that one person’s DNA inherited a single copy of the gene mutation for that hereditary condition or disease but generally, the condition doesn't actually affect that person or their health, because their DNA still has an additional copy of that same gene that doesn't have the mutation.
For example, if you're a carrier for a disease mutation linked to cystic fibrosis, it doesn't mean you have cystic fibrosis. But there's a 50% chance that you will pass along a copy of that same mutation to your future children.
Therefore, expanded carrier status screening is a type of genetic DNA test that can estimate reproductive risks in healthy individuals.
A predictive genetic test may give you an idea of your risk for developing some hereditary cancers
For some people, receiving genetic test results that come back positive for a mutation like this can be life-changing. This can make that person eligible for additional tests like ovarian cancer and breast cancer screenings, starting at an early age. It may also influence them to talk with their family members about potentially getting tested for mutation as well.
And depending on the other risk factors a person has, it may lead them to take further action to help prevent the disease before it begins.
Depending on the type of DNA test you get, you may also be able to learn about whether you have some increased risk for developing conditions that are caused by multiple factors
Most of the time, these tests can tell you if your DNA shows variations that make you predisposed to developing a disease or condition. But this type of result is a lot different than saying you're definitely going to get a disease. This is especially the case when it comes to diseases where your genes and lifestyle choices play a role in whether you get it. Results from a SNP test are just one piece of the puzzle, while other factors like your diet, fitness level, blood pressure, and environment also contribute to whether you'll get that disease.
Currently, the FDA says that some DNA tests are approved to share information regarding a person's genetic health risk for developing 10 medical conditions, including Parkinson's disease, celiac disease, Late-onset Alzheimer's (a progressive brain disorder that affects memory), along with several blood-clotting and tissue disorders.
Some home DNA tests may be capable of telling you whether you're likely to have certain traits like lactose intolerance or a higher body weight. SNP testing can detect variations in a person's genome that are associated with different traits that aren't necessarily diseases as well as medical conditions. As is the case for diseases in which multiple genetic variants play a role, the associations for traits are made based on research that has linked genetic variations in certain populations to these traits. By comparing your DNA to the DNA of others with these traits, these tests can infer traits you might have.
This can be problematic if you're someone from an underrepresented population because your results might not be as accurate as those for someone from a population group that has been extensively studied for associations between variants and traits and diseases
And even if you are from a population that has been well studied and is highly represented in available research databases, it's important to remember these SNP-based test results are not considered a medical diagnosis.
But that doesn't mean they can't be beneficial to you. Learning that you may be predisposed to a certain trait might influence you to make positive lifestyle changes that can improve your health overall.
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