Life or Death DNA test is probably too much information

Published in the Courier Mail 9 June 2009

THERE are things in life that I love to know. I love to know when there is a must-see movie to go to or when old friends are going to be in town.

I love to know when a great new cafe has opened in Brisbane, particularly if it stays open later than 9pm on a weeknight. A long shot I know, but I remain eternally hopeful.

There are also some things that I would prefer not to know. I don’t really want to know that the dress I bought last week is now on sale and I really don’t want to know that there are spiders crawling in the walls of my bedroom.

There’s not really anything I can do about them, so why expend the emotional energy?

Knowing some things can be helpful, while knowing other things can create unnecessary anxiety.

How do we know which is which? Take, for instance, a new DNA test, which purports to tell you what you are likely to die of, and possibly even when that will occur. Is that helpful information?

Some would say yes and, not surprisingly, that includes those who market and profit from such tests.

A recent report on 60 Minutes showcased one such test.

The report showed three Australians undertaking the deCODEme DNA test to find out what diseases and conditions they are likely to succumb to later in life.

Perhaps what was most striking about the results was that they weren’t that striking. In fact, all three participants received results that were not much different from the average Australian’s risk of developing something.

Scott Cam, a TV handyman, was diagnosed as being slightly above the average risk of getting lung cancer or Alzheimer’s. It wasn’t exactly life-changing news.

After discussing them with geneticist, Professor Bob Williamson, Scott said: “So, what we’ve worked out is stay off the smokes, go for a run around the block, do some crosswords and I can have a drink?”

So, do some exercise, quit toxic habits and drink in moderation – nothing particularly groundbreaking there.

I have to admit, I wondered why anyone would bother having a DNA test when you can grab any women’s magazine and get essentially the same advice for a fraction of the cost. (A women’s magazine will also tell you what’s hot in winter shoes – and I’m pretty sure a DNA test can’t do that.)

Williamson is convinced of the power and possibility of genetic research. However, he was also careful to mention the caveat that these tests are good “provided you’re the sort of person who can take these things and live with them and realise that they’re not determining what illness you’ll get – they’re just a hint”.

Therein lies a problem. What if you are not that sort of person? With no mention of psychological profiling necessary before undergoing this simple DNA test, what if we are producing unnecessary anxiety for people?

Considering that anxiety and stress can contribute to their own medical conditions, we could be causing damage. What if, in trying to avert some illnesses, we create others?

Dr Hans Selye, a Canadian endocrinologist, spent his life studying the physical effects of stress and discovered the link between stress levels and emotional and physical health.

He discovered that the emotion most consistent with physical health was gratitude, and the emotion most consistent with physical breakdown was resentment. Further, he concluded that adopting the right attitude could convert a negative stress into a positive one.

No DNA test will pick that up, though. Our health is affected by much more than our genetic predispositions, and we would all be wise to remember that.

Ruth Limkin