Dissecting your genome at the drug store

Regardless of their validity, personal-health blueprints are in great demand.

In a poll taken right after the Walgreens recall, nearly 3 out of 4 said drugstores should sell genetic testing kits, compared with only about 1 in 4 doctors.

People appear willing to pay a lot of money even for imperfect or marginal genetic information about themselves. Tufts Medical Center researchers posed scenarios to about 1,500 people based on disease, risk of getting the disease and test accuracy. Most said they would be tested – from about 70 percent  for a flawed test for Alzheimer’s disease and 10 percent average risk, to nearly 9 out of 10 for a perfectly accurate prostate-cancer test and a 25 percent average risk. People were willing to pay an average of $320 for an imperfect arthritis test, $622 for a hypothetically accurate prostate test.

Four of 5 Americans support a national study of how genes are affected by health behavior and the environment. About 60 percent said they would supply their DNA.

Younger adults are especially interested in genetic information. About half believe that genes play an equal role in health to lifestyle habits. Those with riskier health behavior tend to say genetics has a more pronounced effect, perhaps as a rationalization for bad habits. Those with a family history of disease also place a greater value on genetic information. In reality, genetic markers, on average, account for only about 10 percent of the overall risk of acquiring a disease.

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine attempted to determine how spooked people would be by the results of DTC genetic tests. Researchers assessed the anxiety levels of more than 2,000 who used the tests to analyze their probability of getting any of 22 different diseases. The result: Nine out of 10 were unfazed. Another result: Hardly any of them changed their health habits after getting the results. The implication was that the test was harmless psychologically and ineffective in making a difference in anyone’s life. According to the researchers, DTC tests are “underpowered” with data.

A separate study of genetic-test takers found that about 1 in 4 slightly altered their lifestyles based on the results. About one-third shared the results with their physicians, many of whom did not know what to make of the information.

With genetic tests, consumers seem to be in one of two categories: the fatalists who consider inherited  risk to be destiny that cannot be altered by changes in behavior, and those who believe they can make a difference with lifestyle changes.