Thursday, March 06, 2008

Good News, Bad News, So What?

Full disclosure: my mother has Alzheimer's Disease, which has been growing steadily worse over the past couple of years (no surprise there). As one may imagine, this is a source of both pain and compassion, and has been a difficult journey for those who love her.
And just as folks whose loved ones have succumbed to cancer, there's always the nagging question: am I destined for this, as well? Since no definitive cause has been found, there's not a lot that can be done to head this off, if it's meant to be. Children of alcoholics worry whether they're succeptible to the ravages of that addiction; abstinence is, of course, an easy enough prevention strategy. Unfortunately, when it come to Alzheimer's, from what can one abstain to avoid that? Apparently, not much (yes, there's talk of a link between aluminum and Alzheimer's, but that's far from settled science).
Still, wouldn't it be worthwhile knowing if one might be more sucseptible than one's neighbor?
That's the question that Smart Genetics, a Pennsylvania-based "genetic risk assessment service." The company is set to begin processing "saliva samples for the only known genetic risk factor for late-onset Alzheimer's, which begins after age 65 and represents at least 90% of all cases of the disease." The idea is to see if one has a predisposition toward the disease. One presumes that there are safeguards in place regarding false positives and the like, but that's not the real issue.
Okay, Henry, what is the "real issue?"
Well, when one considers that we don't know what actually causes Alzheimer's, nor is there a "cure" (yet), then what does one do with the information if one "tests positive" (for lack of a better term)?
Professor David Goldstein, who teaches genetics at Duke University, nutshells it thusly:
"It's bad news you can't do anything about."
So the dilemna is really whether or not to send SG a saliva sample and a check for $400. They'll happily and promptly process your DNA, and let you know the results.
The question then becomes: Do I really want to know?
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