CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Quick, how did your great grandmother die? Most of us have no idea. So when the doctor asks you about your family health history, you're doing well if you can go back two generations. Personal DNA testing is filling in the blanks for more and more Americans.
Now you can order it yourself.
My sister and a buddy of mine both suggested I try out DNA testing through a Silicon Valley company called 23 and Me.
Coincidentally, we are all adopted, which presents its own challenges in tracking the genetic roulette that determines so much of our health. But you don't have to be adopted to be murky about your genetic past.
The process is simple enough: Order online, pony up $200.
They send you a sealed test tube with instructions. You spit in the tube. (Don't make jokes. I didn't spit correctly the first time around and had to do it over.) You ship the box to the lab. Weeks later, they email you a link to your very own password-protected results.
There are three distinct components to the results:
• your health
• your ancestry (ethnicity)
• your distant cousins
Many people who start down this path to find out about their definitive ethnicity or genetic ancestry are instead immediately drawn to the health results.
First 23 and Me told me I was at elevated risk of Atrial Fibrillation, a heart arrhythmia. I was impressed, because at middle age, I've already experienced the disorder.
The health report also has good news. Because of my DNA, I am at decreased risk of diseases including prostate cancer and Alzheimer's. The news comes with a caveat: the risk of disease is still influenced by a wide variety of non-genetic factors.
The report goes on to spell out your "carrier status" for diseases, including breast cancer.
My sister survived breast cancer which presented when she was relatively young, in her early 30s.
As an adoptee she was particularly concerned about her status for the sake of her college-age daughter. She was relieved to find it negative, but the results offer no guarantee against the disease. Health check-ups are still important.
In ancestry, I was so hoping for some African identity, some color, some cool. Alas, I am the pastiest white man in America—100 percent European. The DNA gets even more precise, honing in on Germany on my father's side, which is in keeping with what little genealogy I have done.
This web-based service is not Ancestry.com nor does it purport to be. It's a blunt tool to do precise genealogy.
You would be unlikely to find immediate relatives through your DNA. What I mean is that you will probably not find first or even second cousins. However, the social feature is perhaps the coolest.
By virtue of your membership and $200, you can immediately begin contacting third and fourth and fifth cousins and comparing names and family history. Never did I think I would be part of a social network based on haplogroup. Please do not ask me to define 'haplogroup'. Best I can tell, it's the genetic equivalent of a larger tribe, a very, very extended family around the planet.
You don't spend much time on 23 and Me without musing about the big picture, your little piece of human history and where you fit. Check out the YouTube Channel for 23 and Me here.
In the last few days the company has posted an appeal from none other than the Champ, Muhammad Ali, for fellow Parkinson's patients to use 23 and Me for free in the name of cracking the genetic code of the disease.
A moving story. A human connection.