When my father wanted to trace his family tree, he locked himself in a monastery with a room full of dusty 300-year-old books. Day after day, he would return to decipher dates of birth, weddings, and deaths—he even figured out the priests’ code for registering children being born out of wedlock (a crossed circle next to the birthdate).
Me, to do the same, I spat in a cup and sent it to 23andMe. Got the results back a few weeks later. My, how times have changed.
Surely you’ve heard about DNA testing. Companies like 23andMe, AncestryDNA and others analyze your genetic sample and determine who you’re related to (within their database), as well as possible health issues (as best they can). My results didn’t reveal the names of my great-great-great grandparents—dad beat me there. But can a book in a monastery tell you if you’re lactose intolerant? Allergic to cilantro? Or be at risk for cancer? Keep reading to see what else I learned from my DNA test—and what you can learn, too, that might help save your life.
I start with my ancestry—after all, this is why I did the test in the first place.
In the breakdown, I find out that I am 89.4% Eastern European—no surprise, I was born in Poland—and 3.9% Greek, & Balkan, 1.9% French & German and 1.3% Northwestern European. Interestingly—given that I thought I was purely European—I am 0.1% Filipino & Austronesian and 0.1% of Broadly Chinese & Southeast Asian.
The report suggests that Filipino & Austronesian genes joined my genes in the early 18th century. I wonder what my uncles were up to.
I also learned that 4% of my overall DNA can be traced to the Neanderthals. The test identified 262 genetic variants that can be traced to the Neanderthals—my friend who took the test has only 240 and I am sure he will use this information against me one day.
I am proud to discover that I share my ancestors with Marie Antoinette. OK, some 18,000 years ago, but no one will ever take it from me—I am cognate with royals!
Excited, I organized a family Skype call. We thought that our family lived in the same village for generations so exotic genes is big news to us. We start discussing the Balkan heritage—my dad points to my mother’s family: “Some of them had a truly Balkan temper and hair growing in surprising places,” he says. My sister points out that Marie Antoinette’s genes are certainly the reason why I never say no to a cake. I ask my dad about the Filipino & Austronesian traces. “One of our grand grandmothers must have been very open-minded,” he admits.
OK, enough about my family—now what genes can tell me about me?
There are genetic factors that may influence my chances of developing certain health conditions, I learned. In this section I find 13 reports about conditions, including:
Ones I’d heard of before:
- BRCA1/BRCA2 (Selected Variants)
- Celiac Disease
- Late-Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
- Parkinson’s Disease
- Type 2 Diabetes
And ones that were new to me:
- Age-Related Macular Degeneration (AMD)
- Hereditary Hemochromatosis (HFE‑Related)
- Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency
- Familial Hypercholesterolemia
- G6PD Deficiency
- Hereditary Amyloidosis (TTR-Related)
- Hereditary Thrombophilia
- MUTYH-Associated Polyposis
For 10 of them, I tested negative, but I find that a variant had been detected for AMD and Hereditary Hemochromatosis. The report straight away informs me that I am not a risk, but I really want to learn more.
Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is the most common cause of irreversible vision loss among older adults. I knew that my eyesight is getting worse every year but never thought of it as a genetic predisposition. My report says one variant was detected. What does this mean? “This means you have one of the two genetic variants we tested….Most people with this result do not develop AMD. Your risk of developing AMD is influenced by other factors, such as family history, lifestyle, and other genetic variants not covered by this test.”
Still, I decide to visit an ophthalmologist this year.
Next, I check out Hereditary Hemochromatosis, which basically means that my body tends to hoard dietary iron, which can cause damage to the joints and certain organs, such as the liver, skin, heart, and pancreas. The report again warns me that “people with only this variant are not likely at risk of developing iron overload related to hereditary hemochromatosis,” but I recall a look on the face of my physician last time—she was surprised with my iron level. I ignored it at the time, but won’t ever again: I’m talking to a nutritionist about my levels.
I also get a polite reminder that I have a typical genetic likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes, which is nothing surprising, but I take a mental note. 21% chance is still a chance.
So far so good. Now it’s time to think about my future kids.
In this section, I can click on specific genetic variants that may not affect my health but could affect my children’s health.
I find whooping 44 reports, covering ones I’ve heard of (Cystic Fibrosis, Sickle Cell Anemia, Tay-Sachs Disease) to ones that read like Greek (Familial Mediterranean Fever, Beta Thalassemia and Related Hemoglobinopathies, Bloom Syndrome).
This time, I am lucky enough not to carry any of them. But I wonder how this kind of testing can help people planning a family, so I ask Tim Barclay, a Senior Editor of the DNA Health testing website Innerbody.com. “Taking genetic screening tests can allow couples to take steps to minimize the chances that their children will inherit a disorder,” he says, “or allow them to plan for the future, often with the help of a genetic counselor or their healthcare provider.” 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. Newly informed, I move on.
This report seems more fun and it’s about how my DNA may affect my body’s response to diet, exercise, and sleep.
- Alcohol Flush Reaction — I am unlikely to flush (true).
- Caffeine Consumption — I am likely to consume more (true).
- Deep Sleep — I am more likely to be a deep sleeper (I am not sure).
- Genetic Weight — I am predisposed to weigh about average (come on… it’s just a little bit of beer belly!).
- Lactose Intolerance — I am likely tolerant (I don’t love milk so I always suspected I am intolerant; it’s good to have it settled).
- Muscle Composition — My muscles are common in elite power athletes (especially my beer muscle).
- Saturated Fat and Weight — I am likely a similar weight on diets high or low in saturated fat with the same number of total calories.
- Sleep Movement — I have likely more than average movement (my girlfriend agrees).
Each report has a dedicated page with more information, nicely digested and full of small infographics. It’s actually fun to read. I learn among many things that people with similar genetic results tend to move about 16 times an hour during sleep.
The last set of reports explores the genetics behind my appearance and senses—and frankly is the most fun. Here is what we have learned about my traits:
- Ability to Match Musical Pitch — Less likely to be able to match a musical pitch (It’s an understatement, I am basically an anti-Mozart!).
- Asparagus Odor Detection — Likely can smell.
- Back Hair — Likely little upper back hair (fortunately I can’t see it).
- Bald Spot — Likely no bald spot (I got lucky: my dad and my brother are as bald as Bruce Willis).
- Bitter Taste — Likely can’t taste (and I love it!).
- Bunions — Less likely than average to have had a bunion (a bunion is a bony bump on the joint at the base of the big toe).
- Cheek Dimples — Likely no dimples (that’s why I cover my cheeks with beard).
- Cilantro Taste Aversion — Slightly higher odds of disliking cilantro (I love cilantro!).
- Cleft Chin — Likely no cleft chin.
- Dandruff — Less likely to get dandruff.
- Earlobe Type — Likely detached earlobes (it explains my kindergarten’s nickname for me: Dumbo).
- Early Hair Loss — Likely no hair loss (but neither hair gain).
- Earwax Type — Likely dry earwax (eww).
- Eye Color — Likely brown or hazel eyes (true).
- Fear of Heights — Less likely than average to be afraid of heights.
- Fear of Public Speaking — Less likely to have a fear of public speaking (I am not sure about that).
- Finger Length Ratio — Likely ring finger longer.
- Flat Feet— Less likely than average to have flat feet.
- Freckles — Likely little freckling.
- Hair Photobleaching — More likely to experience hair photobleaching (my hair does get lighter in the sun).
- Hair Texture — Likely straight or wavy.
- Hair Thickness — Less likely to have thick hair.
- Ice Cream Flavor Preference — More likely to prefer vanilla over chocolate ice cream (Are you kidding me? I love chocolate!).
- Light or Dark Hair — Likely dark.
- Misophonia — Average odds of hating chewing sounds (I hate people chewing loudly, but I thought it’s cultural rather than genetic).
- Mosquito Bite Frequency — Likely bitten as often as others.
- Motion Sickness — Less likely to experience motion sickness.
- Newborn Hair — Likely little baby hair (mom confirmed).
- Photic Sneeze Reflex — Likely no iltphotic sneeze reflex (true, I don’t recall sneezing in response to bright lights).
- Red Hair — Likely no red hair.
- Skin Pigmentation — Likely lighter skin.
- Stretch Marks — Less likely to have stretch marks.
- Sweet vs. Salty — Likely prefers salty (heck yes!).
- Toe Length Ratio — Likely big toe longer.
- Unibrow — Likely at least a little unibrow (true, I am a male version of Frida Kahlo).
- Wake-Up Time — Likely to wake up around 7:42 am (true, I rely on an alarm clock to be on time at work).
- Widow’s Peak — Likely no widow’s peak (sadly I have one, but so does Leonardo Di Caprio).
Based on these all reports 23andme recommends a Health Action plan, which is based on U.S. guidelines and expert recommendations. It’s still in a beta testing mode which probably explains some generic suggestions—in my case, it’s focusing on diabetes and eye care.
So what do I really take from the whole experience?
- I learned that I don’t carry any specific genetic variants that could affect my children’s health, should I ever have kids.
- I discovered that I carry a variant for AMD and Hereditary Hemochromatosis.
- I have learned that a 21% chance of developing type 2 diabetes. It may be average, but I will check myself every year.
- I will see an ophthalmologist and check my age-related macular degeneration
- I realized that I really need to start to care about my dietary iron levels.
- I learned I am lactose tolerant, so won’t fear dairy.
- Finally, I spent a lot of time with my family discussing our health and sharing stories about our ancestors. This was priceless. Thanks, dad.
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