Does Gene Testing Spur Healthier Habits? Maybe Not

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Would knowing you are at high genetic risk for developing a disease like diabetes motivate you to live a healthier life? A new study suggests it wouldn’t.

Researchers at Cambridge University provided written information about the risk factors, prevention, treatment and consequences of Type 2 diabetes to 569 healthy middle-aged men and women. Then they randomly assigned them to one of three groups.

One group got only the written advice.

The second received a “genetic risk score” based on methods used by genetic testing companies. The third received a score based on health characteristics like age, sex, smoking status, blood pressure and family history of diabetes. Both scores included a percentage estimate of lifetime risk as well as a verbal estimate of whether someone was at “below average,” “average” or “above average” risk.

Researchers interviewed them eight weeks later and found no differences between the groups in what they ate or how active they were. Nor were there any differences in anxiety levels among the three groups. The findings appeared in PLoS Medicine.

“The consumer-direct testing companies would have you believe that genetic information is more motivating in behavior change,” said the lead author, Job G. Godino, now an epidemiologist at the University of California, San Diego. “We tested that. It isn’t.”