The #1 Most Important (Inexpensive, Yet Terrifying) Thing You Can Do For Your Health Today

I just got my test results back from 23andMe, a service that analyzes your DNA.  I paid $100 for the service and agreed to a one year, $10/month subscription for updates on genetic research.

I’m impressed by the report they provided.  It includes sections for disease risks (increased and decreased), carrier traits, responses to drugs, and traits (in the Traits section I learned that I’m “fast caffeine metabolizer” and a “likely sprinter”).

In addition to the summary sections, I’m able to drill down and see the raw data for all the SNPs that were analyzed.  From this data I was able to determine which variants of the MTFHR gene I have that relate to absorbing folic acid and converting it to its active form (I wrote about this topic in this post about B-vitamins).  I learned I have the heterozygous genotype of both Rs1801133 and Rs1801131, which means I’m less efficient (but not totally inefficient) at absorbing folic acid and converting it to its active form.  I recently switched to a multivitamin that contains the methylated (and thus easier to utilize) forms of folate and B12, which makes sense for my MTHFR genotype.

Reactions from Friends

Most people I’ve mentioned this to have the “I don’t wanna know” reaction.  I really don’t get this.  Why wouldn’t you want to know?  There are concrete actions (dietary, supplement, exercise, environmental) you can take to mitigate the risk of almost any illness.  Your genes aren’t your destiny, but having access to detailed genetic information is a huge health boon.  I now know which diseases I’m more (or less) at risk for, and I can make immediate lifestyle changes to protect my health in the long-term.

Bottom line — your own health is your own responsibility.  If you don’t deal with your health risks, the burden is going to fall on your loved ones who will have to deal with your illness and/or premature death.  Even if you don’t have kids, your friends, siblings, parents, business partners, and co-workers all depend on you.  Get the information, and take care of yourself, if not for your own sake then for the people you love.  Of course we can’t live forever (at least in our somatic forms), but we can extend our health and lives significantly with the right information.

Another argument I heard was the “just do the common sense health things and hope for the best” argument.  This makes sense to some extent — choosing fresh foods over processed ones and getting some exercise goes a long way.  On the other hand, a “health food” for one person might be poison for someone else.  Tomatoes, for example.  The tomato lectin (which is not destroyed by heat) is implicated in multiple sclerosis [link to long video of a Loren Cordain lecture], but lycopene (found in tomatoes) may be protective against certain kinds of cancer, and may reduce skin aging.  So should you eat concentrated forms of tomatoes (like tomato paste) that are extremely high in both lycopene and the tomato lectin?  It depends on your risk factors.  If you care about your health, you need to know.  The universalist health approach only goes so far.

I will admit my heart was beating faster right before I looked at the results — there’s always the potential to find some nasty hidden surprise.  Luckily, my report contained most good news.  For example, I have a lower than average risk of cardiovascular disease, I’m not a carrier of any rare genetic diseases, and I have a genotype that is associated with centenarians.  Nice.

100 here I come.

Lifestyle Changes

According to the 23andMe results I have a slightly higher than average chance of getting prostate cancer.  The reports includes a summary of research relating to environmental factors and the disease in question — in other words what can you do about it.  For prostate cancer, there is weak evidence that dietary lycopene can be protective, and somewhat stronger evidence that a high calcium diet can be a risk factor.  Higher levels of dietary folate are protective as well.  OK — eat lots of fresh fruits and vegetables (especially red ones, high in lycopene), don’t take calcium supplements, and easy on the dairy products (especially low-fat dairy, which is proportionally higher in calcium).  I can live with that.

I also have a genotype that slightly elevates my risk of Parkinson’s Disease (which my grandmother succumbed to), but another SNP genotype that is slightly protective against the same disease.  I have a reduced risk of Alzheimer’s compared to the general population (4.9% vs. 7.2%), but that’s still higher than my 2.2% chance of getting Parkinson’s Disease (even with my elevated risk for the latter).  It’s all relative.  I have a 40% less chance of developing coronary heart disease compared to the general population, but this still leaves me with a 29% risk, which is pretty high.

23andMe includes an “attributable to genetics” stat for each disease, which is helpful.  For most diseases, like coronary heart disease, diet and exercise are going to play a big role — at least 50% in most people.  So I intend to keep my HDL’s high and my VLDL’s and triglycerides low, despite my “reduced” chance of getting this disease.

Maybe that’s why my forehead keeps getting bigger.

Psychological Insights

I was curious to know which variant of the rs4680 SNP of the COMT gene I carried.  As I suspected, I’m a GG genotype, which means I break down dopamine faster than most people, resulting in lower dopamine levels in my brain.  This genotype is associated with less exploratory behavior.  This makes sense — I’m not an adventurer/explorer type.  On the upside, my brain may perform dopamine-related tasks better under stress.

The report offered some positive news in other mental areas — my IQ was likely boosted by breastfeeding (thanks Mom), I may have a higher non-verbal IQ, increased episodic memory, and a “higher nonword reading score,” at least to the extent that these traits are attributable to genetics.

I’m also more tolerant of pain than most people, and have an 80% chance of being unable to taste certain bitter flavors.

Data-Security Risks

It’s possible that 23andMe (a private company) could violate their user agreement and sell my genetic data for a profit.  It’s also possible they could be hacked and the data could be stolen.  Another common nightmare scenario is that once your genetic data has been analyzed and released, a health insurance company could get hold of it and use the information to deny you coverage.

Get real — health insurance companies can already deny you coverage for any reason they want.  National health insurance is the solution to this problem, not willful ignorance about your own genome.

For me, the benefits of knowing my own genetic information far outweigh any potential security risks or info-dystopia fantasies.

Ancestry Information

The 23andMe report includes an ancestry section.  I already knew my paternal and maternal haplogroups from participating in National Geographic and Spencer Well’s Genographic Project, but 23andMe provides the same information and much more at a lower cost.

I’m 100% European — no surprises there.  I included my information in the “Relative Finder” section to see if it will turn up any interesting cousins.


I’m not an investor or employee of 23andMe.  I’m not a shill either — I’m simply writing this post because I think they provide a great service.  Being able to spit in a test tube and get a detailed genetic information report in a matter of weeks is the most science-fiction thing that has ever happened to me.  You should do it too.

18 responses to “The #1 Most Important (Inexpensive, Yet Terrifying) Thing You Can Do For Your Health Today

  1. I am compound heterozygous MTHFR and have met many people with this. Keep up the research.

  2. I’m in! BTW, my step-father did this and was surprised to discover he had a small amount of African descent. He had always known himself as an Italian/German. I think he was tickled by the surprise.

  3. regarding prostate cancer screening, didn’t they recently decide that they would not screen people because too many warning signs were leading to unnecessary treatment?

    I’m in the camp of “don’t want to know”. Except for the “relative finder” part. Curious if this is a male/female thing? (males want to know. Females not so much).

    • Among friends and family one male and one female have decided they’re going to use the service, and three male friends were in the “I don’t want to know” camp. So far, no clear gender bias in either direction.

  4. thought-provoking. But I expect no less from you, JD!

  5. I’m not sure its such a bad thing if they sell your genetic data for a profit. If they are doing the work of aggregating user data then distilling it in a research report to improve science, is that so bad? I go back and forth on that for my own company and I see both sides. We still haven’t come to a decision on that point. Love to hear more of your thoughts on that.

    • As long as it’s anonymous (stripped of name, email, etc.), and the user has a clear, obvious opt-out option (or even better opt-in) then I personally wouldn’t have a problem with that. Other people might though — DNA data is sensitive. I don’t think the same standards can be applied to all data types.

  6. Regarding data security – I’m certain that we are going to have home DNA kits with software in the future. And if you can extract and analyze your own DNA, you can extract and analyze others…

  7. I wouldn’t be surprised if we show up as distant cousins. The results you’ve shared are almost identical to mine – except I only have 1 foxo C (but 95 yrs old isn’t too bad). If you don’t mind answering, for those of on 23andMe, are you anonymous on the relative finder or does your name show?

    • It’s up to the user. I’ve chosen to share my name (as well as some common surnames in my extended family), but so far it looks like about 80% of 23andMe users choose to not share name or location data on the Relative Finder feature. If you don’t share your name then just your haplogroup shows up.

  8. How do you keep this anonymous? I don’t mean to the online community, but I mean between you and the company. Don’t you have to give them your address? Please advise.

    • It’s not anonymous between the customer and 23andMe, and that’s a possible risk (data-theft or corporate malfeasance). However you can easily control how much information you want to share with other 23andMe customers.

  9. Very interesting.
    I am going to ask my doctor for his opinion, though I can’t see much downside (unless the outfit is just incompetent etc etc)

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