Following the FDA’s recent ruling to allow at-home genetics tests to reveal risk analysis for 10 genetically linked diseases, many medical ethics experts have expressed concerns about providing this information to consumers in the absence of any genetic counseling. Medical experts worry that having access to this information could cause undue anxiety among consumers.

The FDA had previously ruled against this type of direct-to-consumer testing, on the grounds that the information could lead people to make medical decisions that were unnecessary or even harmful. When genetic testing is performed in a doctor’s office, patients have access to medical professionals who can help them interpret the results and determine the best course of action, if any. While the FDA urges consumers to seek out the advice of health care professionals when reviewing their test results, there is no guarantee this will happen.

However, Dr. Robert Green, genetics professor at Harvard Medical School, believes that most people who seek out genetic information understand the risks and are able to handle the results. “There is some potential for distress,” he told The New York Times, “but it is much, much smaller than was anticipated.”

What do you need to know if you’re considering at-home genetic testing? Health experts recommend asking yourself some important questions, and keeping some key facts in mind.

Risk is not diagnosis

Genetic risk is just one part of a bigger picture, which includes additional elements such as diet, environment, tobacco use, and other lifestyle factors. Having a genetic risk “does not mean [someone] will or won’t ultimately develop a disease,” said Jeffrey Shuren, M.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health. The tests cannot determine a person’s overall risk of developing a certain disease or condition. A person may have the genes associated with Alzheimer’s disease, for example, but may never get the disease. Conversely, some people develop disease without the associated genes that put them at risk.

Healthy habits reduce the risk of disease

For some diseases, maintaining a healthy lifestyle can outweigh any genetic risk. A 2016 analysis of data from more than 55,000 people found that healthy lifestyle habits — including regular exercise, not smoking, and eating a healthy diet — cut the risk of heart disease in half, even when people were found to be genetically at risk. “You do have control over the problem, even if you have been dealt a bad genetic hand,” said Dr. Sekar Kathiresan, the director of the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Unhealthy habits, however, can double a person’s risk even if they have good genes.

Those who cut their risk of heart disease were individuals who exercised at least once a week, did not use tobacco, kept their weight within a healthy range, and ate a diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and nuts.

Those same habits can help keep the brain healthy and reduce the risk of degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Optimizing your intake of omega-3 fatty acids, remaining socially active, managing stress, and getting adequate sleep also have a positive impact your long-term brain health.

Questions to ask yourself before getting a DNA test

Before making the decision to test your DNA, health experts recommend evaluating your motivations for obtaining this information. What is it you hope to find out, and what are you going to do with this information? Understanding how your body reacts to different foods can help you devise a personalized diet — a practice based on the scientific study of nutritional genomics — that can help you lose weight, increase energy, gain mental clarity, reduce your risk of disease, and reach other important health goals. Ask yourself what you’d like to achieve, and if you are prepared to make the necessary dietary and lifestyle changes.

Vivaliti DNA offers personalized genetic blueprints based on information obtained from 80 genetic markers — up to 10 times more than other DNA fitness tests on the market. Combined with actionable plans that allow you to make sustainable lifestyle changes, our genetic blueprints provide unparalleled insight into your unique genetic makeup and help you make smarter decisions about your health every day. Request a complimentary consultation with a Vivaliti DNA Health Coach to learn more about genetic testing and how it can help you live a healthier, fuller life.