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What you should know before taking a genetic test for risk of Alzheimer's

Posted: 9:38 PM, Oct 01, 2019
Updated: 2019-10-02 00:24:36-04

BOISE, Idaho — After at-home testing for Alzheimer's risk was approved by the FDA in 2017, genetic testing for predispositions boomed in response-- including in the Treasure Valley.

It's like that age-old dilemma of-- just because you can know-- should you? 6 On Your Side's Madeline White talked to a St. Luke's medical doctor who said her recommendation often depends on the person and what they're trying to achieve.

"Most people go in thinking, 'I'm not gonna find anything abnormal, but what if you do?" said Dr. Cecile Zhao, MD, Neurologist at St. Luke's Hospital.

It can be tempting to want to know if you're doomed to getting Alzheimer's, especially if you have been forgetting things lately or if you have a close relative who suffered from the disease. The online tests like 23 and Me, however, are not up to medical standards. They include this on their label.

The gene analyzed to determine one's risk of developing Alzheimer's is called the APOE gene. Everybody has three types of this gene-- allele types 2, 3, and 4. If the results of your test show you having any combination of 2s or 3s, the test will tell you you're in the clear. But, if you have any combination that includes the 4 allele, the test will tell you that you're at an increased risk of developing Alzheimer's.

Dr. Zhao says she cautions against these kits or even performing testing for her patients-- with exceptions.

"The only time I had done genetic testing was on really strong family history and a really young onset," said Zhao.

She said valid reasons could include volunteering one's self for research or family planning.

"A younger woman, who's like, 'I wanna know, because if i'm gonna be doomed to have early onset Alzheimer's, I may not have children." Right? So... that's gonna change your long-term planning," said Zhao.

But she said she worries about mental side effects.

"You don't want to get too much information and then be stressed about what's gonna happen," said Zhao. "Anxiety, lack of sleep, [and] depression, actually puts you at increased risk of developing Alzheimer's."

Alzheimer's is yet to have a cure, but Zhao said the key to delaying or preventing the disease is lifestyle choices.

"'We're like, 'Exercise, eat healthy, don't smoke, don't drink'... all those things we keep on telling people to do," said Zhao. "Which, they're hard to do, I will admit that," she added, laughing.