Don’t Trust Your Health to 23andMe

“Live in the know.”

That’s the slogan for popular DNA test-kit service 23andMe. You’ve likely seen the company’s ads about how easy it is to use its mail-service kit to send away a sample of your DNA to learn more about yourself. 23andMe claims to reveal everything from where your ancestors lived to your predisposition of various diseases.

In general, I’m not against these tests. Several members of my team used the Ancestry.com-branded test to learn more about their histories. But they have a clear understanding of the limitations of these tests (along with the privacy implications).

However, the press release in mid-March from 23andMe gave me pause. The company announced it would start testing folks for a predisposition to type 2 diabetes.

The concerns me for a simple reason… Type 2 diabetes has many risk factors. Finding out you have a genetic disposition does NOT mean you’ll get it. Likewise, finding out your genetic risk is low or non-existent does NOT mean you’re in the clear.

And while knowing more about yourself may not be a bad thing, remember that knowledge without understanding is dangerous. For instance, the DNA service also tests for Parkinson’s disease. The problem… only a handful of Parkinson’s cases are connected to genetics. About 85% of all cases are idiopathic. That means there’s no cause (genetic or otherwise) behind the disease.

So you can imagine a negative result could cause a false – and dangerous – sense of security.

Let’s take a look at the real genetic risk here for diabetes…

One study from the journal Diabetologia looked at family history as well as genetic risk scores. Family history did increase risk. However, as the authors explained “the genetic score alone explained only 2% of the family history-associated risk of [type 2 diabetes].”

Asking your family for diabetes history is still a better indicator than a genetic test. Your risk increases if one or both of your parents have a type 2 diabetes diagnosis. It’s even higher if either got that diagnosis before the age of 50.

But again, these are not the only risk factors. Most risk factors you can control. Here’s a look at some other factors that contributes to type 2 diabetes…

  • Weight
  • Age
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • High blood pressure
  • Polycystic ovary syndrome
  • Gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy) 

Similarly, eating foods that raise your inflammation levels also lead to diabetes. That’s why we urge you to stop eating trans-fat foods, processed foods, and artificial sugars. Remember, “white killers” like white bread, white rice, and white sugar are just that – killers. Cut them out of your diet as much as possible.

The Best Way to Fight Diabetes – No Matter Your Genes

Interestingly, not long after 23andMe made their announcement, a new diabetes study published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

The study confirmed what we’ve said for years – your best health lies on a U-shaped curve.

Researchers followed more than 4,600 participants with an average follow-up period of about eight years. They measured muscular strength. What they found was that folks fell into three categories based on their strength – high, medium, and low.

Those in the medium group had the lowest risk of developing type 2 diabetes. In fact, they had a 32% lower risk compared with the lowest-strength group.

The moderate strength group fared better than the higher group. That’s likely because too much exercise can take a toll on your body. That’s why marathon competitors often have harder blood vessels and higher risk for heart disease.

The point here is that exercise is still one of the best ways to stave off diabetes. Not only will it burn excess fat (which triggers chronic inflammation), but it keeps your body working efficiently to maintain your blood sugar levels.

I already recommend walking regularly as a way to combat diabetes. Just walking for twenty minutes after a meal helps regulate blood sugar levels. Given this new study, I recommend adding in strength training a few times a week as well. After all, it’s also one of the best ways to keep your bones healthy as you age (far better than calcium supplements).

While knowledge is indeed important to maintaining your health, you need to also take responsibility for your own lifestyle choices. That means making better choices about diet and exercise regardless of what any test might tell you.

Don’t rely on a spit test in the mail to tell you whether or not to “worry” about diseases to which you may or may be predisposed. If you have a family history, particularly for certain cancers (like breast cancer), get the proper testing done through your doctor.

What We’re Reading…

Here’s to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
May 7, 2019