Home testing kits may give individuals a distorted view of their type 2 diabetes risk

At-home testing is becoming a popular option for individuals who are concerned about their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. However, one group of researchers is saying these kits may come with a significant emotional toll.

Thanks to advances in identifying genetic markers associated with disease risk, it has become possible for companies to develop testing kits that individuals can use in the privacy of their own home. This appeals to many consumers, but experts say they may do more harm than good, as they are only able to tell a person if they have a genetic susceptibility for disease like type 2 diabetes, not if they actually have it.

In order to investigate the effect of these tests on individuals' mental state researchers from the Mayo Clinic surveyed individuals who had used at-home genetic testing kits.

"We looked for evidence of increased concern about disease based solely on genetic risk, and then whether the concern resulted in changes in health habits," said lead researcher Clayton Cowl.

The team found that for up to a year after the test, individuals who were shown to have genetic risk factors for certain diseases experienced higher levels of stress. However, this anxiety tended to diminish after one year.

The results also showed that many individuals may misplace their worry. For example, few people with genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes expressed serious concern over the disease, despite the fact it is extremely common, even among those with little genetic susceptibility. Conversely, participants at risk for rarer conditions like Grave's disease, which has an extremely low prevalence even among those with genetic risk factors, reported higher levels of worry.

What may be more concerning than the stress of those at high risk for disease is the complacency of patients who are shown to be at low risk. The researchers said that individuals who find out that they have few genetic susceptibilities to conditions like type 2 diabetes may change their lifestyle for the worse.

This can be a problem, as a condition like type 2 diabetes is brought about by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. A person who eats an unhealthy diet and rarely exercises may still develop metabolic problems, regardless of their genetic makeup.

Furthermore, the team said their study was unable to determine the accuracy of the tests, which is another concern that has been raised. If the test results are not reliable, individuals may make potentially dangerous lifestyle adjustments based on inaccurate information.

The study raises the age-old question of whether it is better for people to know if they are going to develop a disease like type 2 diabetes or if ignorance really is bliss. On the one hand, learning about potential genetic risk factors may enable individuals to adjust their lifestyle to live healthier and avoid the condition entirely. On the other, worrying needlessly about genetic susceptibilities that may never actually affect a person's health could be counterproductive.