An article in today’s News & Observer explores some basic questions about genetic testing to determine one’s chances of developing certain diseases. If people learn that they are genetically predisposed to develop Type II diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease, for example, would that knowledge motivate them to improve their health and reduce risk factors in their control, or would they be more inclined to give up and resign themselves to a genetically determined fate?
The question is no longer a matter of science fiction: genetic testing has advanced in both accuracy and in the number of potential health issues that can be identified. As the field has grown, costs have also dropped, making testing more available and more affordable.
So — if a test can tell you whether your genetic makeup puts you at high risk for certain types of cancer, for dementia, or for diabetes, would you change your lifestyle to reduce your chances of developing disease, or would you stay the unhealthy course and blame poor health on bad genes?
It’s a legitimate question, because we don’t need genetic testing to tell us that obesity and sedentary lifestyles make us more prone to heart disease and diabetes, that smoking can lead directly to throat and lung cancer, that alcohol abuse damages the liver. Yet, many people who know these things do not change their behavior. Would results of a genetic test be enough to push them to take action?
Studies thus far suggest that patients are more optimistic about potential change than are their doctors. One study at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School found that 79 percent of doctors and 80 percent of patients thought genetic testing for the risk of diabetes would be useful. But, while 71 percent of patients said the results could motivate them to make lifestyle changes, only 23 percent of doctors believed patients would follow through.