Family Health

Should You Get an Ancestry Test to Predict Your Risk for Genetic Diseases?

Nov 19 • 2018
Should You Get an Ancestry Test to Predict Your Risk for Genetic Diseases

Health Benefits of Genetic and Ancestry Testing

Family and medical history tests help patients and doctors learn about potential illnesses. Recurring diseases or conditions in a family can signal an underlying genetic connection. For example, patients who have a close relative diagnosed with cancer at a young age may have an increased risk of also developing certain cancers. With advancements in genetic research, however, health care providers can more effectively identify diseases with a genetic connection—and help patients make more informed health care decisions.

According to Lorrell White, senior genetic counselor at Baptist Cancer Center, advancements in genetic testing help doctors and physicians identify patients with a higher than usual chance of developing common disorders, such as heart disease, high cholesterol and certain cancers.

Preventing Disease With Genetic Testing

At Baptist Cancer Center, patients can work with a genetic counselor to determine if they have an increased risk for hereditary cancer. First, a detailed family history is taken to identify family members who have cancer, the types of cancer they have and their ages when diagnosed. Then, genetic testing is discussed.

“Once we appropriately identify patients with a strong family history of hereditary cancer syndromes, my goal is to offer genetic testing,” said White.

Using a sample of blood or saliva, genetic counselors test a person’s DNA to identify gene mutations that increase that individual’s risk of developing certain cancers.

“We test genes in the body to define various changes,” said White. “Sometimes these changes are bad and can show a person’s increased risk for a specific disease or inherited syndrome, such as a higher risk of developing certain cancers.”

Baptist Cancer Center works with patients who may be at risk for hereditary cancer, but genetic testing also is available for other conditions, such as heart disease, high cholesterol and more. 

Genetic Testing vs. Ancestry Testing

While genetic and ancestry tests both use a saliva sample to test DNA, a clinical genetic test can accurately identify certain disease risks based on gene mutations. Alternately, ancestry tests—such as 23andMe and AncestryDNA—are an increasingly popular method for learning about your family’s background and migration patterns through DNA.

Some online ancestry kits advertise health screenings, but according to White, disease predictions based on these tests remain limited.

“The connection between genetic makeup and disease is clear, however, ancestry tests are limited to determining what regions or countries your ancestors came from,” said White. “Ancestry testing is useful to find out what part of the world you’re from, but if you want to find out your risk for cancers, diabetes or heart disease, you should pursue clinical genetic testing.”

Patients who want to learn about potential health risks can find out more by speaking with a genetic counselor and undergoing clinical genetic testing.

“It’s fun to take ancestry tests,” said White. “But when someone walks through my door with their results, I still need to do the clinical genetic testing to get accurate results.”

The Future of Genetic Testing

As scientists continue to study DNA, genetics will play an increasingly central role in disease diagnosis and become more integrated into the medical system.

“Genetic testing helps health care providers deliver more proactive and preventive care,” said White. “With greater accuracy and clearer insights from clinical genetic testing, physicians will be able to determine better treatments, especially when prescribing medications.”

Research shows how genetics can predict the risks for certain diseases. Similarly, genetics may also predict which medications will have the desired effect with the least side effects. A genetic test that determines this information is called a pharmacogenetics test.

“In the future, if a patient has depression and anxiety or some other condition that may require medications, we could do a pharmacogenetic test,” said White. “That test tells us which drugs are going to work best for that person based on genetic testing. This testing is available for a limited amount of drugs but will likely expand in the future.”

Learn more about the Genetic Counseling and Testing Center at Baptist Cancer Center. Find a Baptist doctor by visiting our Find a Doctor page.