Is Genetic Testing a Good Idea for Seniors?

Reviewed and Updated by Addison McNatt,

Around 60% of adults ages 50-64 say they are interested in genetic testing, but less than 10% have actually gone through with taking one, according to a national poll done by the University of Michigan and the AARP in 2018.

Seniors have tended to stay away from genetic testing and there are a few reasons why. You may have seen the headlines about DNA testing scams, or you may feel that knowing the likelihood of future diseases would make you worry too much. It’s always best to get informed before you start swabbing anything!

How is genetic testing done?

Genetic tests can be done with a variety of biological samples, including hair, skin, blood, or saliva. Most commercial DNA tests will either have you spit into a sterile tube or use a cotton swab to collect samples from the inside of your cheek. 

Your genetic information is sent back to a laboratory, where technicians examine the DNA, chromosomes and proteins to look for variations associated with certain traits or diseases. The results are then sent to your home or doctor’s office, depending on what sort of genetic test you received.

Types of genetic tests

Genetic testing is actually a very broad term, covering everything from newborn screenings to forensic testing. But for health or ancestry information, the test will likely be predictive or diagnostic.

Many of the popular online genetic testing services offer predictive testing. These look for signs of potential disorders of which you have no symptoms at the time. If a physician orders your genetic test to confirm a condition based on your symptoms, it can be considered diagnostic testing.

Pros and cons of genetic testing

Genetic testing can provide a great insight into your health and family history, but there are still risks to consider. These should be weighed against the benefits before you decide to get a genetic test done.

Ancestry and health information

60% of the seniors polled by the AARP reported they would be interested in genetic ancestry testing. These tests are usually performed by looking for variations in the Y chromosome, which can be used to determine ancestry along the male lineage, or the mitochondrial DNA, which is only passed down from the mother.

The level of detail in your ancestry results will depend on which service you choose. Some services break down the globe into 500 geographic regions, where others separate it further into over 1,500 regions, giving you more detailed results. 

An equal amount of seniors have expressed interest in genetic testing to learn more about their health. They may get tested to see a clearer view of their general wellness, or to know their future risk of disease. But like the regional breakdown of ancestry, not all health tests on the market will test for the same conditions.

What diseases can be detected through genetic testing?

Until the last few years, the FDA had forbidden any direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing service to give their customers information about health and potential disease. This changed in 2017 when they approved one of the biggest DTC services for testing these 10 conditions:

  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency
  • Celiac disease
  • Early-onset primary dystonia
  • Factor XI deficiency
  • Gaucher disease type 1
  • Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase deficiency
  • Hereditary hemochromatosis
  • Hereditary thrombophilia
  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

Several other DNA testing services are seeking the same FDA approval and the scope of at-home genetic testing for disease will only grow larger from there. Tests are available for other conditions such as cancer, but they must be ordered by a physician.

Privacy concerns

Seniors expressed several concerns about genetic testing in the AARP’s study, but genetic privacy was not one of them. The sensitivity of genetic information is part of the reason the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) was passed in 1996. But the legislation included a loophole, allowing companies to sell genetic data as long as it was not tied to your name or other information.

This loophole has been a windfall for the genetic testing industry. Testing services are partnering with pharmaceutical firms and granting them access to a backlog of genetic samples for use in research. Some services allow you to opt out of having your information sold, but be sure to read their Informed Consent paperwork carefully before you sign!

Genetic Discrimination

Another danger of having your genetic information sold and distributed is something called genetic discrimination. This occurs when you are treated negatively by an insurance company or even employer because of your genetic test results.

Luckily, the Genetic Information nondiscrimination Act (GINA) was passed in 2008 to help safeguard you from such discrimination. The two sections of that bill went into effect in 2009 and make it illegal for employers or insurers to use your genetic information against you.

Does Medicare cover genetic testing?

In the AARP’s study, roughly 68% of seniors said they would be more interested in genetic testing if it was fully covered by their insurance. Several questionable DTC testing services have taken advantage of this by claiming their tests are covered by Medicare, then fraudulently billing the program thousands of dollars. 

In truth, Medicare will only cover the cost of genetic testing if it is ordered by a doctor. Your physician may order a genetic test to confirm a cancer diagnosis, or to assess how you will metabolize certain drugs. For more information on receiving Medicare genetic testing reimbursement for cancer screening, see our full article on the subject.

If you have a Medicare Advantage plan, you may also be covered for certain diagnostic tests and could be entitled to additional benefits. Click here or call us at 844-431-1832 to speak with one of our licensed agents about finding the right plan for you!

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