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At-home Genetic Tests: A Tool for Planning Retirement Health Needs?

Retirement planning is both an art and a science. No matter how minutely trends are analyzed and how much data is crunched, most individuals want even more scientific forecasts on long-range cost-of-living increases, stock value fluctuations and housing market shifts.

Planning for future health care needs can be even more daunting. Medicare often doesn’t cover costs for health products and services. For a 65-year-old couple retiring in 2017, these costs can exceed $350,000 over the span of two decades. In addition, declining health can affect nearly every aspect of life in retirement, from your clients’ travel options to their ability to live safely and independently at home.

Many health-conscious consumers, then, welcomed the news in early April that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would allow genetic risk tests to be sold directly to the public. Marketers for these tests claim they reveal an individual’s predisposition to certain medical diseases or conditions.

According to information from the FDA, specific tests can show a predisposition for:

  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Late-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Celiac disease
  • Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (raises the risk of lung and liver disease)
  • Early-onset primary dystonia (movement disorder)
  • Factor XI deficiency (blood-clotting disorder)
  • Gaucher disease type 1 (organ and tissue disorder)
  • Glucose-6-Phosphate Dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PD) (red blood cell condition)
  • Hereditary hemochromatosis (iron overload disorder)
  • Hereditary thrombophilia (blood clot disorder)

These tests offer a promising new tool for individuals who want to assess their risk of future illness and make lifestyle changes to delay, minimize or prevent these illness’ onset.

Health professionals warn, however, that the promise may be overestimated by users who don’t understand the data’s limitations.

“Many genetic tests are simply correlation-based tests and are not always indicative of cause and effect,” says genomics specialist Dr. Kendal Stewart, MD. “It is imperative for both consumers and health care professionals to understand this basic difference.”

The key, he notes, is for consumers to work with a physician or other health care provider, either of which can help the patient to understand their test results.

“I personally believe that more knowledge is better than less,” says Stewart, explaining that these tests can offer patients “an ability to alter, intervene or avoid risk factors that can only be found in genetics.”        

There are, however, risk factors associated with the tests themselves, according to Mary Freivogel, MS, CGC, president of the National Society of Genetic Counselors.

“If you have a genetic variation that increases your risk of developing a particular disease, it can influence your options for getting long term care, disability and life insurance policies,” she says. “Although there are strong federal protections with regard to genetic discrimination by an employer or health insurer, federal laws do not exist that relate to life insurance, long term care insurance, or disability insurance.” State laws vary on this issue.

She cautions against using these tests to plan for health care needs and costs in retirement, explaining that diseases and disorders are caused by complex and multiple factors, including genetics, environment and pure chance.

“The FDA has approved some tests for medical conditions,” Freivogal adds. “However, the FDA has not approved these tests for diagnosis or treatment.”

Another risk: The tests can lead to unnecessary financial and emotional costs in the short-term.

“Many findings from at-home tests can cause unnecessary fear,” says Stewart, “and lead some patients to pursue expensive treatments that afford little benefit.”

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