Mapping Your Genes

Mapping Your Genes

Spend a weekend with your family and you can't help but wonder if you've inherited your father's tendency to put on weight or your grandmother's rheumatoid arthritis. Now, with a gaggle of new companies offering direct-to-consumer genetic testing, you can find out without even going through your doctor. Spit in a tube, send in a saliva sample—accompanied by a hefty check—and you can learn if your genes put you at increased risk for a host of conditions, from Alzheimer's disease to restless legs syndrome.

Make better decisions
The tests won't tell you definitively that you're going to get these diseases, but they may help you make informed, even life-saving, decisions about your health. Just ask Lauralee Nygaard. She always knew she had heart disease and diabetes in her family, but the Spokane, Wash., periodontist was blindsided when she suffered a stroke in 2005 at the age of 38. Her doctor was equally mystified, and when three months of testing didn't provide any answers, she suggested Nygaard undergo genetic testing with Decodeme.
Sure enough, the test revealed a genetic variation associated with atrial fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia that can cause strokes, which means Nygaard's stroke was no fluke and she could have another.

Now that she and her doctor know about her genetic risk, Nygaard is more determined than ever to stick to a regimen of heart medications, healthy foods, and regular exercise. "I'm keeping to my program now that I know my risk of having another stroke is high," Nygaard says. "The testing gave me another piece of objective information and offered the chance to alter my path. It helped explain why I had a stroke at 38."

Gain insight
Few people who undergo mail-order genetic screening have such dramatic experiences. In fact, for many the test simply confirms what they already knew—Aunt Minnie and Grandpa Saul had diabetes and you're at increased risk of this disease, too. But for others, genetic testing offers new insights. Terry Drotos, who was adopted at birth, knew nothing of her roots until January when the 54-year-old underwent testing with Navigenics, a company in Redwood Shores, Calif., to uncover some of the secrets of her genetic destiny. Small-boned and always slim, Drotos had never worried about her weight, but the test results indicated she was at a slightly increased risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes, as well as osteoarthritis.

When she shared the results with her 22-year-old daughter, Brittney, the younger woman was stunned. "I never would have thought my mom could be at risk for obesity and diabetes," says Brittney, now more concerned about the extra pounds she put on in college. Though Brittney has not yet undergone genetic testing herself, the information about her mother was enough to inspire her to get fit. She cut out junk food, upped her exercise, and lost 23 pounds.
"I can't say my test results made her change her behavior, but that was certainly part of it," says Drotos, who now feels even more compelled to exercise regularly and stick to a healthy diet.