Parents are interested in genetic testing for their children to find out kids’ risks of common health problems including cancers and heart disease, according to a new study.
But as such testing becomes more widely available — already, several companies sell tests like these directly to consumers — it could pose a challenge to pediatricians and other health providers who will have to advise parents on the benefits and risks of learning what lurks in a child’s genes, the journal Pediatrics reported Monday.
“Prudence dictates thoughtful consideration of these new tests in relation to children’s health,” wrote the study’s authors, led by Kenneth P. Tercyak, a psychologist at the Georgetown University Medical Center.
There are several reasons why, the authors said. While there are potential upsides to testing kids for common diseases (learning that your son has an enhanced risk of heart disease could let you emphasize healthy eating and exercise early on; learning that he’s not at risk could be very reassuring) there are downsides, too. Testing your child’s genes could be an invasion of privacy. Also, it remains unclear how useful or actionable the information that current tests provide really is. Plus, parents may not anticipate how they’ll react to learning about an increased risk for disease.
To date, professional organizations have cautioned against predictive genetic testing on kids, the paper reported, based on cases where tests in question look at serious conditions for which there is no prevention or cure available — the most common situation thus far. Sussing out risks for preventable illnesses may be a different matter.
The study was based on a survey of 219 parents of 445 children ages 17 and under. The parents were participants in a study about genetic testing for themselves, and answered an additional panel of questions about genetic testing for their kids. The genetic test in question looked at genetic changes associated with increased risk for colon, skin and lung cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes.
Generally, parents indicated that they believed the benefits of genetic testing on their children outweighed the risks. Noting this, and anticipating that parents would begin approaching healthcare providers to ask for testing more frequently, the study’s authors recommended that pediatricians begin devising ways to counsel parents about potential outcomes.