DNA Tests – worthwhile or a waste of time & money?

Getting your DNA tested has become a popular activity for thousands of people – and a profitable one for clinics and laboratories. It seems we want to know our ‘biological age’ for some reason.

According to the Harvard Health Letter, “For as little as $100, some companies will sell you a home kit that allows you to send your DNA (in a drop of blood or a cheek swab) to a lab. After a few weeks, the company mails you the test results, which tell you what your telomere length is and how that length compares to your peers.”

For more money, you can talk to a company “coach,” who explains the results to you and helps you come up with a plan for healthier living.

Other (more expensive) ways to get the test include:

  • going to a walk-in clinic with a doctor who’ll order the test for you and then talk you through the results
  • buying and ordering a test from a company that directs you to a lab or a doctor who works in your area
  • asking your own doctor to order the test for you.

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Is it valuable knowledge, or little more than curiosity? 

There’s no way to know how accurate various telomere tests are. “There are a few published methods for telomere measurements. Some are better than others in terms of quality control and robustness. The most common method is called the real-time PCR method.

“We run it in my lab at the Harvard Cancer Center. But it requires expertise to run the test, and there are a lot of variables,” explains Dr. Immaculata De Vivo, a Harvard Medical School professor and genetics researcher at the Dana-Farber/Harvard Cancer Center.

Having just one telomere test — even in a research lab — can’t tell you how fast your telomeres are shortening. This is because we’re not all born with the same quantity of telomeres, and because you’d need a baseline test followed up over time with more tests to find out how much telomere length you’re losing.

Plus, even if your telomeres are shortening, it doesn’t mean something bad will happen. “And if your telomeres are long, it doesn’t guarantee that something bad won’t happen,” says Dr. William Hahn, a Harvard Medical School professor and chief research strategy officer at Harvard-affiliated Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Should you try telomere testing?

The commercial labs and clinics plugging telomere tests suggest that the results will help you make better lifestyle decisions to slow telomere shortening and increase telomere length.

Is it really possible? “There’s nothing that has been proven to prevent the shortening of your telomeres,” says Dr. Hahn.

However, since stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits have been linked to shorter telomeres, it is reasonable to suppose that stress reduction and healthy lifestyle might be beneficial. “There is mounting evidence that a healthy lifestyle buffers your telomeres,” Dr. De Vivo says.

Learning your telomeres’ status could then be a wake-up call to change behaviors associated with telomere shortening, such as eating a healthier diet, losing weight, stopping smoking, or reducing stress.

But do you really need to pay for a test to tell you that? It may be easier to adopt healthy habits associated with a longer life.

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