Guide to Finding the Best DNA Health Test

Last Updated: July 24, 2018

23andMe's DNA Test

Health DNA testing has come a long way in recent years, and it is thrilling to imagine the wealth of information we’ll be able to learn about ourselves in another 10 years. Last year, 23andMe became the first company to receive FDA approval to market genetic risk information for certain conditions. Unlike some of the other well known DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA or MyHeritage, 23andMe has focused a lot of its efforts on providing consumers with very useful health-related information. For that reason, and given that there is not much competition in the space (yet!), we can cut to the chase: 23andMe is our top choice for health-related information.

Read on to find out how DNA health tests work, what you can discover about your health from them, and how we determined our recommendations.

Summary of our Findings and Recommendations:

Here are the best DNA test for health:

How DNA health tests work

23andMe's DNA Testing Lab

DNA is the genetic code that governs the functioning of our cells and essentially determines every biological aspect of who we are. You can think of it as a kind of blueprint that controls the way your body works and is passed down through the generations in the form of sequences of code called genes. All humans share over 99.5% of our DNA with one another, but it is the genes making up the 5% difference that account for all of the diversity we see between individuals. These gene differences are called ‘variants’, and while most gene variants are neutral, some can cause serious diseases.

DNA testing involves providing a sample of your DNA (usually in the form of a saliva sample), which is sent to a lab for analysis. Using the extensive databases and associated research, testing companies can predict your risk of developing certain diseases based on what gene variants are present in your code. You’ll receive comprehensive reports outlining your risk factors for each disease, along with your carrier status and additional information explaining how to interpret the results.

For a more detailed explanation of how DNA testing works, we created an entire guide on this topic: Comprehensive Guide to How DNA Tests Work.

What can you learn from DNA health tests?

A health DNA test can tell you quite a bit about aspects your genetic health, ranging from serious to just plain fun. Here are some of the areas that you can learn about:

Health risks

By analyzing your DNA and looking at what genetic markers are present, health DNA testing companies can tell you about your risk of developing a range of conditions. In the case of 23andMe, there are nine different diseases-risks covered, including your likelihood of developing:

  • Breast cancer
  • Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Age-related macular degeneration
  • Parkinson’s disease

Test results provide you with valuable information that you can use to make informed medical decisions. It’s important to remember that these tests do not provide diagnosis and that you should interpret the results carefully, ideally with the help of a genetic counselor or healthcare provider.

Wellness

‘Wellness Reports’ contain information on other traits that are related to your overall health. These include your natural genetic weight, how likely you are to experience deep sleep, and your predisposition for addiction, along with other traits. This information can be useful to guide you in terms of your diet and lifestyle, but don’t read too much into the results! For instance, you may weigh much less than the average person of your sex and age, but find that your natural genetic weight is in fact 7% above average. This is because genetics is only a small part of the story; lifestyle and environment are very important factors for most characteristics covered in this test!

Carrier status

DNA tests can include ‘Carrier Status’ reports, which tell you whether there are disease-causing gene variants in your genome. Most of the time, these variants don’t affect you directly, but you may pass them on to your children. (For more information on how this works, please visit: How can genes that don’t affect me affect my children?) Examples of diseases that can be passed on in this way include cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anemia, and hereditary hearing loss. Most commonly, if both parents are carriers for a certain disease-causing variant, there will be a 25% chance that their child will be affected by the disease. Taking ‘Carrier Status’ DNA tests can allow couples to take steps to minimize the chances that their children will inherit the disorder, or allow them to plan for the future, often with the help of a genetic counselor or their healthcare provider.

Cellular aging

Incredibly, it is now possible to learn about how well your cells are aging using DNA testing. The test is based on telomeres, which are cap structures that protect the ends of our chromosomes from being degraded. Your telomeres naturally wear down and shorten as you age; each time a cell divides and DNA replicates itself, telomeres get a little shorter. But scientific evidence shows that other factors within our control can affect our telomere length positively and negatively, including:

  • Stress management
  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Sleep quality
  • Exposure to toxins in our environment

By measuring the length of your telomeres and comparing this result to others of your age and sex, it’s possible to discover how well you appear to be aging compared to others of your demographic, according to the company database.

Telomere lengths changing naturally with cell division

Interpreting your results

There is a lot to consider both before and after undertaking a health DNA test. If you’re planning on taking health DNA tests, 23andMe advises you to get in touch with a genetic counselor beforehand to discuss your expectations regarding the test, whether you may be distressed by the resulting information, and whether the benefits of learning such information outweigh the drawbacks. Genetic counselors are healthcare professionals with special training in the interpretation of these kinds of reports. Consultation in advance is of course optional and many customers don’t feel the need to do it.

However, it’s extremely important to discuss any worrying or alarming DNA health test results with a genetic counselor or healthcare provider, rather than trying to interpret the risk information yourself. Even if the test does not recognize any variants for a particular illness in your genome, this doesn’t necessarily mean you are not at risk of, or a carrier of, that disease variant; not all variants for these illnesses have been identified yet (in the case of 23andMe, further information on this would be available in the report itself). If you do test positively for a particular disease risk variant or carrier variant, for some specific illnesses there are a variety of options that you might consider to effectively minimize your risk and that of your children, and so you should share your results with your doctor.

Privacy considerations

Your genetic data is the most personal information you possess, and privacy is an important consideration when deciding which DNA testing provider to use. All DNA testing companies will have comprehensive privacy statements, and these are the best places to start when evaluating different providers. In the case of 23andMe, you have a number of decisions to make before receiving your results, including:

  • Whether you want your saliva sample discarded or stored once it has been analyzed
  • Which health reports you would like to opt into or out of
  • Whom you would like your information shared with
  • Whether or not you consent to the use of your DNA results for scientific research purposes

Most companies go to great lengths to ensure confidentiality, but if you’re concerned about privacy, some research on the company website is advisable before committing to a particular test provider.

Your testing options and our recommendations

23andMe is the best choice for most people

For health DNA testing, 23andMe is our clear top choice at this time. They have been around the longest, which gives them a distinct advantage in terms of collection methods, large database size, and FDA approval. 23andMe offers a wide array of relatively easy-to-understand reports including most mentioned above (except for cellular aging), along with solid DNA ancestry testing. We don’t think you will be disappointed if you go with 23andMe. To learn more, visit our full 23andMe review.

TeloYears is a solid complementary option

We recommend TeloYears more as a complimentary test to take in addition to 23andMe, because it is entirely different than that of 23andMe. TeloYears examines a different facet of your DNA and helps you understand how well your cells are aging. If you discover that your telomere length is shorter than average, you can make positive lifestyle changes to slow or reverse the trend, possibly reducing your risk of developing age-related disease. Of course, if you are only interested in the cellular aging component, then no need to take the 23andMe test as well. It is important to note that TeloYears also offers ancestry testing—although it is less developed than the other major players in that industry. For more information, visit our full TeloYears review.

Promethease

While not a competing provider, Promethease bears mentioning here as a third party database. When people take a DNA test with one of the major test providers like 23andMe or AncestryDNA, often they want to do everything possible to maximize what they can learn from the results. Third party databases can play a role in that effort; most famously, databases like GEDmatch provide further opportunity to gain useful insights into ancestry and allow customers to connect with even more living relatives who originally tested with a different provider.

But no matter who provided your test, the data they present to you will not be a full exploration of your DNA. In other words, there’s some information that you still can’t see—even if you’ve actually taken a health DNA test.

For a relatively low cost, you can upload your DNA data to Promethease, as long as you tested with AncestryDNA, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA. Using the wiki-driven SNPedia database of SNPs, Promethease will expose some of the DNA information that the other companies don’t show you. They reveal this information to you for 45 days, at which point your data will no longer be available for review (though you can download your report).

What can you learn right now from Promethease? The short answer is, you can gain access to a fair bit of interesting information, but only if you know what to look for and how to interpret the results. Unless you’re a genetic scientist or a very knowledgeable amateur, you should probably consult with a healthcare provider in order to make sure you don’t misinterpret results.

HealthCodesDNA

One last newcomer that we thought we would at least mention is HealthCodesDNA. We haven’t yet had the chance to take and evaluate their test, but it looks promising. It offers a “3-Panel Wellness Analysis” that is supposed to provide insights into personal attributes, food metabolism, and fitness. We will update our recommendations after we have a chance to review them.

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