5 On Your Side

Genetic testing can help people predisposed to disease, but not right for all

Posted March 29

Advances in genetic testing now allow people to find out whether they are predisposed to everything from cancer, to depression to Alzheimer's disease.

Sometimes the diagnosis can be potentially life-saving, but in some cases, Consumer Reports says it may not be worth it.

After Fran Heller developed a breast tumor, genetic testing showed she had an inherited a predisposition to cancer. Later tests showed others in her family also had the same gene mutation.

“My sister, she made the decision sort of right away to have a prophylactic bi-lateral mastectomy and also to have her ovaries removed," Heller said.

Consumer Reports Medical Advisor Dr. David Seres said if one or more close family members has a disease with a genetic link, testing for the gene might make sense.

“In some diseases, genetic testing gives us the ability to detect problems early," Seres said. "It also helps us to potentially decrease the severity of the illness and may even help decrease the risk of developing the illness in the first place."

For instance with breast and colon cancer or some types of heart disease there are good strategies for early detection and preventive measures, such as following a diet and exercise plan to lower your risk. But the same isn’t true for Alzheimer’s disease.

“We really don’t recommend that people get genetic testing for Alzheimer’s disease," Seres said. "There’s no way to prevent it even if you know that you have the gene. But also, not everyone who has the gene will develop the disease, and so you may just be causing yourself unnecessary worry and costs.”

It’s very important to consult with your doctor to see if you are a good candidate for genetic testing and if getting the results will be helpful.

In some cases the tests may be covered by insurance.

People who have a close relative who developed colon or uterine cancer before age 50 might consider a genetic test for Lynch Syndrome. About 3 to 5 percent of colon cancers stem from this inherited condition. Increased surveillance can help detect any problems early.

For some people genetic testing is crucial to detecting diseases early so that they’re treatable and hopefully not fatal.

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