Should you test your child’s DNA?

Every parent at some stage worries whether they have passed on a hereditary disease to their child. While there are many ethical debates around DNA testing, this is what some can reveal.

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Did you know that in countries like Norway and Finland, it’s standard practice to test every newborn baby for various genetic disorders? This is because conditions like cystic fibrosis, sickle cell anaemia, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, Tay-Sachs disease, phenylketonuria, and thalassemia, which are caused by a single gene mutation, can respond well to early treatment and prevent potentially serious complications or permanent disability.

In other countries, for example Kuwait, compulsory DNA testing was over-ruled after being challenged in court, in favour of protecting the right to personal liberty and privacy.

However, few diseases are the result of a single genetic mutation. Instead, multiple genes interact with each other and, along with environmental factors, can influence your child’s risk of illness, and its severity. What this means, according to nutrigenomics specialist Dr Christa North is that it is possible for us to influence whether or not these conditions will manifest.

“Every parent at some stage worries about whether they have passed on a hereditary disease to their child,” says Dr North, “and the truth is that their susceptibility to those conditions is indicated in many of today’s DNA tests.” While some might argue they don’t need all this “doom and gloom”, Dr North says the focus of precision medicine, which includes DNA testing, is for parents to use the information to avoid these conditions setting in. Prevention, she argues, is far more effective once you know the risks!

“Genetic tests can help parents to make informed lifestyle choices for infants and young children. For example, these tests can help identify the likely cause of digestive issues, to avoid further symptoms and promote healthy digestion” she says.

ALSO SEE: Newborn screening for genetic metabolic illness

What lifestyle DNA testing will enable you to know about your child

  • The risk of nutritional deficiencies can be identified in DNA test results. This way you can work out exactly which nutritional supplements should be given to your child.
  • The Geneway Genediet test explains which food types are best suited to their system and which should be avoided.
  • DNA tests explain a child’s circadian rhythm and give insights regarding their optimal sleep times and needs.
  • The Geneway Genesport test explains whether your body is better positioned for anaerobic (power/ strength) or aerobic (endurance) sports, as well as how well your body will respond to exercise. This can help guide you on how to manage this aspect of your child’s development.
  • New DNA tests identify the strengths and weaknesses of each person’s immune system and give indications of how these can be addressed for optimal health.
  • The onset of diabetes in children has increased tremendously in the past decade. Testing your child’s DNA helps explain their predisposition for this condition so that you can structure their diet accordingly, and know what signs to watch out for.

ALSO SEE: Could genetic testing be the best early intervention for childhood obesity?

The details are in the DNA

Here are a few of the genes that are tested by South African DNA testing company Geneway and what they indicate:

MTHFR – Switching genes on / off Sometimes your child’s focus is great, other days s/he has major anxiety, complains about headaches or is simply just grumpy. Even autism is a possibility
COMT – “laid-back or tense?” The gene that determines whether your child is cheerful and focused or quickly irritated, impatient, has a high pain sensitivity and sleep is a challenge
DAO – “sensitivity to certain foods” You know your child is allergic to ‘something’ or sometimes you feel like he / she is allergic to ‘everything’, but cannot figure out what?
GSTs – “Detox issues” Chemicals and smells make your child feel sick and they probably will develop grey hair early. In addition, they are more vulnerable to DNA damage.
MAO-A – mood swings & carb cravings This gene helps govern the levels of dopamine and serotonin, brain chemicals that affect mood, aggression, productivity, vulnerability to addictions, self-confidence, sleep and carb cravings!
NOS3 – heart issues Are heart problems on the way? Cold hands and feet can indicate that blood flow and blood vessel formation are affected.
PEMT – liver and brain issues No! Your child is not made to be a vegetarian! In addition, gallbladder problems and muscle pain are common.
APOE – want to play rugby? The ApoE gene promotes repair and growth in brain cells after traumatic injuries such as concussions. Contact sports are not a good idea
HFE – “iron man” Iron deficiency is the most common nutrient deficiency in the world, however, the opposite, an iron overload, can have far more devastating consequences. Too much iron in the body causes liver disease, fatigue, weight loss, abdominal pain and has an effect on normal puberty development.
F2 & F5 – blood clotting issues Blood clotting disorders, heart disease and strokes. Diseases that start young but are often only diagnosed when too late

To test or not to test

It’s argued that the information obtained in DNA tests can be used to dramatically improve your child’s quality of life if it’s accompanied by proper medical interpretation and thorough recommendations. This means that you, as a parent, will be in a position to make more informed choices regarding their health, wellness, sport and diet if you are equipped with detailed information.

What is important is to ensure that a qualified healthcare provider interprets and presents the results to you. DNA reports are highly detailed, and while some international companies do offer a test and report (without consultation), a professional consultation is highly recommended to ensure that both you and your child gets the full benefit of the test.

More about the expert:

Dr Christa North (PhD) is a genetics specialist, and one of few Nutrigenomics experts in South Africa. Based at Geneway, one of South Africa’s top DNA testing companies, she is passionate about the use of DNA testing in preventative and proactive health care. She is an expert in the application of DNA as a roadmap to determine what you should and should not eat. She also runs her own Dietetics practice in Johannesburg. Dr North is registered with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) and a member of ADSA (Association of Dietetics of South Africa). Learn more about Dr Christa North here.

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