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Finding the Best DNA Health Test

Our experts explain everything you need to know about DNA health testing.

Medically reviewed by: Gerard DiLeo, MD
Last Updated: Aug 14, 2020

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. In 2017, 23andMe became the first company to receive FDA approval to market genetic risk information for certain conditions. That wasn’t long ago, yet since that time the company has been granted FDA approval and clearance for direct-to-consumer genetic testing that explores genetic health risk for additional conditions, such as cancers and type-2 diabetes, along with providing information about pharmacogenetics (how our genes affect our metabolism of various medications).

And 23andMe isn’t alone. The data you can gather about your genome today through at-home testing, from a health standpoint, is worlds beyond what was possible just a few years ago. But with a growing cast of competitors making tests – and given that this is new to most Americans – how do you choose the best DNA health testing kit?

Our experts have thoroughly tested the services of major and minor companies in the DNA testing arena. Here in this guide we will break down the pros, cons and all considerations to help you decide which health DNA test is best for you.

What is the best DNA tests for health?

Unlike some of the other well-known DNA testing companies like AncestryDNA, 23andMe has focused a lot of its efforts on providing consumers with very useful health-related information. As you will see below, many smaller testing companies focus on one or two niche health areas and serve you admirably in those areas. 23andMe, however, really shines in a number of areas and offers the most comprehensive DNA-based health test by far. For this reason, 23andMe offers the best all-around tests and remains our top recommended testing provider for most people.

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.

Why you should trust us

Innerbody Research recently celebrated its 20-year anniversary online. Over the past two decades, we have helped tens of millions of readers make informed decisions involving staying healthy and living healthier lifestyles.

Our testing team has purchased and compared over 300 genetics-based tests to date, and we are constantly updating our reviews based on the latest test advances. We strive to give you, our readers, an unbiased, marketing-jargon-free description of the DNA tests reviewed based on scientific evidence.

The primary author of this guide has a PhD in Genetics and was formally a Population Geneticist for a major DNA testing company. And like all medical-related content on this website, this guide was thoroughly vetted by one or more members of our Medical Review Board for medical accuracy.

What can you learn from DNA health tests?

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

  • Genetic health risk
  • Carrier screening
  • Wellness and health traits
  • Nutrition
  • Fitness
  • Cellular aging

When we take DNA tests for health purposes, it’s important to keep in mind that genetics play a role but are part of a broader picture.

Now let’s explore these areas of DNA health testing in more detail.

General health risk testing

Best DNA Health Test | Innerbody

By analyzing your DNA and looking at what genetic markers are present, DNA testing companies can tell you about your risk of developing a range of conditions. For example, 23andMe covers more than 10 different disease risks, including your likelihood of developing:

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

It is always important to remember that these tests do not provide diagnoses. You should interpret the results carefully, ideally with the help of a genetic counselor or healthcare provider.

Best for Health Risks
23andMe: Ancestry + Health

23andMe: Ancestry + Health

By far the best at-home DNA test for general health risks, covering 10+ reports covering breast cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson's disease, and more.

23andMe offers the most well-rounded, comprehensive at-home DNA health test on the market. The Ancestry reports included are also top-notch and a fun bonus that complements the health-related information nicely.

Carrier screening testing

Carrier screening is a type of genetic test that can tell you whether you carry a genetic variant associated with certain genetic disorders. Most of the time, these variants will not affect you directly, but you may pass them on to your 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 genetic screening tests can allow couples to take steps to minimize the chances that their children will inherit a disorder, or allow them to plan for the future, often with the help of a genetic counselor or their healthcare provider.

Best for Carrier Screening
23andMe: Ancestry + Health

23andMe: Ancestry + Health

This test’s Carrier Status Report covers an outstanding 44 different inherited conditions + Health Risks, Wellness, Traits, and Ancestry reports.

23andMe offers the most well-rounded, comprehensive at-home DNA health test on the market. The Ancestry reports included are also top-notch and a fun bonus that complements the health-related information nicely.

Wellness & traits testing

Wellness and traits 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.

Best for Wellness & Traits
23andMe: Ancestry + Health

23andMe: Ancestry + Health

This test’s Wellness & Traits Reports cover 5 different wellness areas and 30+ traits. Test also includes Health Risks, Wellness, Traits, and Ancestry reports.

23andMe offers the most well-rounded, comprehensive at-home DNA health test on the market. The Ancestry reports included are also top-notch and a fun bonus that complements the health-related information nicely.

Nutrition testing

Some “wellness” areas are more popular than others, and nutrition and fitness are the most popular by far. Tests in these two areas aim to go beyond simply giving you nice-to-know information. Instead, they give you actionable recommendations that will enable you to live a more healthy lifestyle. In a nutshell, the tests look at specific gene variants that are thought to be associated with particular traits such as metabolism, muscle tissue type, gluten sensitivity, and nutrient absorption. As long as you: 1) take the resulting recommendations with a grain of salt, 2) keep in mind that lifestyle and environmental factors also weigh heavily in most outcomes, and 3) consult a professional nutritionist before making any drastic diet changes, these tests can be motivating and fun.

Fitness testing

Another very popular “wellness” area that deserves its own section is Fitness. DNA tests in this category analyze different genes related to metabolism, exercise recovery, and muscle strength. Again, we would like to make the same caveat that you must: 1) take the resulting recommendations with a grain of salt, 2) keep in mind that lifestyle and environmental factors weigh heavily in most fitness-related outcomes, and 3) consult a professional physical trainer or medical professional before making any drastic changes to your fitness regime.

Cellular aging testing

Incredibly, it is now possible to learn about how well your cells are aging using DNA testing. The tests are 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 please keep in mind that scientific evidence shows that other factors within our control can affect our telomere length positively and negatively, including stress management, diet, exercise, and sleep quality, to name a few.

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

Best for Cellular Aging
TeloYears: Telomere Health

TeloYears: Telomere Health

The only direct-to-consumer test on the market that measures and analyzes telomere lengths.

TeloYears has developed state of the art technology to give you a unique perspective on your health and well-being. It also offers an above-average ancestry-focused test if that interests you.

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How we choose our recommendations

We customize our evaluation criteria depending on the type and nature of the health-related test. For DNA test kits, we have five areas that we use to evaluate and ultimately form our recommended tests. They are:

Testing Technology: Does the testing company use the latest and most accurate testing technologies available? How frequently does the company update its gene chips to reflect the latest scientific advances and new links between DNA and disease, genes, and base pairs?

Results Presentation: How clearly are the test results presented? Are the results be easy to understand? For those who want it, how much scientific detail do the results offer?

Value: Are you getting your money’s worth? Will you have (free) access to new results as the testing company updates its gene chips in response to new scientific advances? Are there any hidden costs or charges (shipping, etc.)?

Privacy: Will your data be stored securely? Could your data ever be shared without your permission? How clear is the testing company’s privacy policy?

Customer Support: If you have any issues with your test, how well does the testing company respond? How well does it answer questions you may have regarding the test results?

How DNA 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, which 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 0.5% difference that account for all the diversity we see among individuals. These gene differences are called “variants,” and while most gene variants are neutral, or account for the normal variation among us all, 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.

The concepts of DNA, genes and chromosomes can become quite confusing. For those who want to get a better understanding and demystify the DNA testing process, let’s go a bit deeper.

DNA, genes and chromosomes

DNA, genes and chromosomes diagram

Our bodies are made up of trillions of cells, the basic units of life. Within the nucleus and mitochondria of each cell there is genetic material called DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid), that controls almost every aspect of how a cell functions. DNA is often referred to as the “blueprint” of life, because as cells multiply, their DNA is the informational code that directs the development of new cells (similar to how building blueprints direct the construction of new buildings). Specific areas of DNA molecules contain sequences of code that determine traits that are passed down from parent to offspring, and these are called genes.

Chromosomes are long strands of DNA that contain many genes. With rare exceptions, humans have 46 chromosomes arranged in 23 pairs, where one chromosome from each pair is inherited from your mother, and the other from your father—this is where the testing company 23andMe gets its name. Hopefully our diagram illustrates how all these terms fit together.

DNA double helix and bases

DNA is a double-stranded molecule in the shape of a double-helix composed of a sugar-phosphate backbone onto which are attached four different bases: adenine, thymine, cytosine, and guanine. The sugar and phosphate form the supporting DNA strands (shown in grey) and the bases form the inside pairs (shown in color). How the four bases are arranged spells out the language known as the genetic code, which determines who we are. Most genes can be thought of as recipes for making specific proteins. These recipes are replicated and passed down from parent to child, generation after generation.

The copying of the recipes, however, is not always perfect. Sometimes copy errors are made, and these errors are called mutations. Some mutations are harmful and can cause severe disease, but many are neutral and contribute to the natural genetic variation we find among individuals. If such a mutation is passed down through the generations and becomes prevalent to a certain degree in a population, it becomes known as a single nucleotide polymorphism (SNP, pronounced: “snip”). Of the over 3 billion base pairs in the human genome, around 10 million are SNPs. Essentially, this means that we share over 99.5% of our DNA; the 0.5% difference caused by accumulations of SNPs accounts for most of the variation between you and everyone else on the planet. Amazing!

As SNPs are heritable and vary between populations, comparing the SNPs that pop up frequently in one group of people vs another is how we can make educated guesses about where your ancestors came from and what physical traits you are likely to have. DNA testing is simply the process of extracting your genetic code, focusing on what SNPs are present in your code, and telling you what traits, ethnicity, or disease risks are currently thought to be associated with those particular markers.

The DNA collection process

Submitting your DNA to a DNA test provider such as 23andMe or AncestryDNA is incredibly simple. You just have to submit your saliva or a swab from your cheek and the lab does the rest. The first step in the extraction process at the lab is to isolate the DNA so that it is in a purer form. Then, the DNA is placed into a machine where it is analyzed by a DNA genotyping chip. These chips target specific genetic markers, usually short DNA sequences surrounding SNPs. Once the sample is genotyped, the information is loaded into the data system and you are sent a report outlining what your DNA says about you.

Different types of DNA

One last thing that is helpful to understand is that the DNA in our bodies can be grouped into several different categories. We will cover here the three most common categories used for direct-to-consumer (DTC) DNA testing.

Autosomal DNA

We mentioned earlier that almost all humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in the nucleus of most of their cells. Of these 23 pairs 22 of them are made up of what we call Autosomal DNA. This means that the DNA contained on these 22 pairs of chromosomes is not integral to determining the sex of the individual. One copy of each of these chromosomes is inherited from one’s father and the other from one’s mother.

Why take this test and what are the limitations? Autosomal DNA forms the basis for most of the information we can learn from genetic testing, as it covers 22 of our 23 chromosome pairs, and can provide information about traits, ethnicity, ancestry and disease susceptibility/wellness. Autosomal DNA is inherited from both parents, and both men and women can have their autosomal DNA tested. Many genetic testing service providers focus solely on testing autosomal DNA, and it is by far the most common type of DNA analysis.

Y-chromosomal DNA (or Y-DNA/yDNA)

The “23rd pair of chromosomes” is unlike the other 22 and is often referred to as the sex chromosome pair. This pair determines whether you are genetically male or female. In almost all cases, a person inherits an ‘X’ chromosome from their mother, and either an ‘X’ or a ‘Y’ from their father (there are rare genetic disorders where we see other combinations). If your sex chromosomes are ‘XX’, you are genetically female, while if they are ‘XY’, you are male. Since only males have a Y-chromosome, this chromosome and its associated y-DNA is exclusively passed on from father to son.

Why take this test and what are the limitations? Y-chromosomal DNA testing is only available to men (as women do not have a Y-chromosome) and can allow male customers to gain great insight into the genetic ancestry of their fathers. Y-DNA is particularly useful for ancestral genetic testing because it does not undergo a rearranging process called recombination, unlike the other chromosomes, which are reshuffled and rearranged between each generation.

Women: do not despair! If a close male relative such as your father, brother, paternal uncle, or paternal male cousin were to have his genome tested, you can predict your own paternal lineage results from his reports.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA)

illustration of mtDNA

Mitochondrial DNA is very unusual, as it comes not from the cell’s nucleus, but rather the cell’s energy-producing “factories” called the mitochondria. mtDNA is circular in shape and is only passed down from mother to child. Male children carry their mother’s mtDNA, but they do not pass it on to their children, who instead inherit it from their mother.

Why take this test and what are the limitations? Mitochondrial DNA makes up a tiny proportion of the human genome and does not tell you about traits you are likely to have, as its purpose is solely to govern the function of the cells’ energy producing centers. However, it can still provide information regarding ancestry, and is particularly useful for this purpose. As mtDNA is inherited exclusively from your mother and, like yDNA, does not undergo recombination, analysis of mtDNA allows genetic scientists to trace your maternal lineage back through potentially hundreds of generations. Both males and females can take mtDNA tests, but only to investigate the ancestry of their mother.

If you’re interested in learning more about mtDNA, take a look at reports concerning the widely publicized “3-parent baby” born in 2016, and at the concept of the “mitochondrial eve”.

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 positive for a particular disease risk variant or carrier variant for some specific illnesses, there are a variety of options 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. You may also want to take a look at our popular guide: DNA Testing Privacy: 5 Recommendations for New Test Takers.

DNA health testing and ancestry testing

While the primary focus of this guide is DNA testing for health purposes, many people are understandably interested in DNA tests that give insight into ancestry as well as health. Thankfully some test providers – like 23andMe, Ancestry, and MyHeritage, among others – have responded to this desire by offering test packages that conveniently cover both bases.

For those of you who are interested in ancestry as well as health, here is some information about how DNA tests let you learn about ancestry as well. There are two primary goals in ancestry testing: testing for an understanding of ethnicity, and testing for genealogical purposes.

Ethnicity estimates

Helps answer: Who am I and where did my ancestors come from?

By analyzing your DNA and comparing it with those of various regional sample groups from around the world, DNA tests can give you broad estimates of where your ancestors likely came from. Different companies can provide different levels of location accuracy, depending on how extensive their databases are and how sophisticated their analysis is. For instance, here is a picture of my ethnicity estimates from AncestryDNA.

screenshot of ethnicity estimates from AncestryDNA

Ethnicity testing can provide highly accurate results on a continental level and also on certain historically smaller and more genetically isolated groups, such as Native Americans or Ashkenazi Jews. However, on a more local level the results become harder to decipher, as the free movement of people within continents has obscured differences between populations. For instance, it is easy to pinpoint a relatively small percentage of East African DNA in a European individual’s genome, but less simple to assign the majority of the DNA to a specific European country, such as France, Italy or Germany. While this ambiguity can be frustrating, location accuracy is constantly improving as more data is gathered by the service providers, and companies such as AncestryDNA now claim to be able to assign your origins to over 350 distinct regions around the world.

Genealogy

Helps answer: Who are my specific ancestors and living relatives?

DNA tests can help you identify relatives you never knew you had. The major testing companies have proprietary ‘relative-finding’ tools to help you. And DNA testing can help you identify recent and long-ago ancestors in your family tree. You may be surprised how far back into the past this can take you, especially if you find living relatives who are doing the same kinds of ancestry research.

There are three types of DNA test that you’ll be able to purchase from the direct-to-consumer test providers: autosomal tests, yDNA tests, and mtDNA tests. These types of test differ in how they help reveal details about ethnicity and genealogy.

Autosomal DNA tests

Anyone can take an autosomal DNA test and it’s the best place to begin ancestry testing. By far the most common type of test taken, it’s the only test necessary for satisfying most geneology-related goals. The good news is, every provider offers autosomal testing. With some providers, like AncestryDNA, it’s the only kind offered.

Autosomal testing gives you a sweeping view of your ethnic heritage by examining the portions of your DNA that make you uniquely “you.” By comparing these genetic markers to those of various regional sample groups from around the world, DNA testing can provide you with accurate estimates of where your ancestors likely came from. You can also use autosomal testing to search for relatives on either side of your family tree, though it can’t tell you the specific branch where a match is found. Unfortunately, a process called recombination results in the random reassortment of autosomal DNA between each generation, so after a certain number of generations the information becomes too jumbled to decode. To learn more about recombination, please visit: What is DNA recombination?

A test that examines your autosomal DNA will not tell you about your paternal or maternal haplogroups. To learn more about haplogroups, please visit: What are haplogroups?

yDNA

The Y chromosome is one out of two possible chromosomes (X or Y) in each person’s sex chromosome pair. Only men can take yDNA tests, because only men have a Y chromosome (women have two X chromosomes); however, women can obtain the same ancestry information by asking males in their close family to take the test on their behalf, for instance their father, brother, or paternal uncle/cousin.

One of the things that makes yDNA testing powerful is that the Y chromosome does not undergo the random reassortment process called recombination that we mentioned above. This means that men inherit these portions of DNA virtually unaltered for generation after generation, and only via the male lineage, making yDNA testing perfect for exploring your paternal lineage.

mtDNA

mtDNA (mitochondrial DNA) makes up a very small proportion of the human genome, as its sole function is to control the energy factories of the cells (the mitochondria). Both men and women inherit mtDNA exclusively from their mother. This means that while only women will pass along their mtDNA to their children, mtDNA testing is available for men and women alike.

As with yDNA, mtDNA does not undergo recombination between generations, which means it is largely conserved and can be used for accurate tracing of your maternal lineage far back into the past.

One additional quick note: notice how we said that yDNA and mtDNA get inherited “virtually unaltered?” It’s because once in a while, a random genetic mutation will occur, which does in fact alter the inherited DNA. When a mutation gets passed down over generations and becomes prevalent to a certain degree within a population, it’s called a Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP). In DNA testing, SNPs provide very important clues about your ancestral origins. For more on that, visit: What is an SNP?

Common areas of difference among test providers

Type of DNA test offered

DNA test providers vary in what types of tests they offer to you. Some offer only autosomal testing, while others offer all three types but may bundle them, making the price a bit higher. Even among the companies that provide all three types of test, offerings vary based on how extensively the tests study your yDNA or mtDNA.

Database size

Actually, both the size and the composition of a testing company’s database are important. Generally, larger size means more accurate geographical information from ethnicity testing and that you have higher chances of being connected with living relatives. The composition of a database can also have big implications for the accuracy and detail of the ethnicity and geographic testing. A database with many samples from all over the world will be able to match your DNA to a wide range of regions, while a database with very little data from West African regions, for instance, will likely miss West African DNA in your genome. Companies vary widely in database size and composition, though they typically reveal very little or nothing about the latter for proprietary reasons. It is sometimes possible to view a list of regions covered by ethnicity testing on a company’s website, but for the purposes of comparing and choosing between the major companies, it’s generally best to focus on size.

Tools offered

One of the benefits of choosing a major DNA test provider is that they’ve taken the time to create user-friendly interfaces and tools to help you make the most of your test results. Major DNA testing companies offer tools to help you find living relatives, get a clear picture of your ethnic background, explore the geographic migrations of your ancestors, and, in the famous case of AncestryDNA, tie your DNA test results into the pursuit of mapping your family tree.

Data compatibility

Some companies allow you to export your DNA data or import data from other companies. Exporting and importing data can be useful for taking advantage of another company’s database or community; you can increase your chances of finding living relatives and learning about your ancestral origins, because your cousins might have chosen company A rather than your choice of company B. Additionally, many people upload their data to third party databases like GEDmatch. Third party databases are inexpensive and growing in popularity, but they don’t accept data from every provider; so, so if you intend to upload your results to another database it is wise to check compatibility when making your selection.

Community

It’s probably not surprising that questions and confusion are common when studying DNA test results. Even so, people are often surprised by how much they can benefit from having a robust genealogical community connected to their DNA testing experience; it can make a big difference to what you can learn from your results, and it may determine whether your single-test experience blossoms into a deeper interest in genealogy. It’s one thing to learn about your ancestors’ migration patterns and your paternal haplogroup, but it’s another thing to have a community of more experienced and knowledgeable genealogy enthusiasts to help guide you toward a deeper and richer understanding of what it all means.

Budget

Cost varies by provider, and often different prices are available from the same provider based on a multitude of factors like the type of test offered and the extensiveness of the testing. There are also related post-testing costs that can add up in certain cases if you want to use some of the features and tools that help make the most of your results. Testing can be close to $50 or close to $500, all depending on your goals.

Underrepresented populations

Historically, direct-to-consumer DNA testing was unsatisfying for those of us with non-European heritage; people who hoped to explore African, Native American, Jewish or East Asian ancestry really had a difficult time. And if you were adopted, you faced steep challenges as well. Thankfully, as the largest databases have grown more diverse thanks to a growing number of consumers, the test results have become much more useful for adoptees and people with non-European heritage. Even so, your mileage will vary from company to company, depending largely on their database, community, and the types of tests they offer.