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Beware accuracy of mail-in genetic tests

  • Published Tuesday, Dec. 24, 2013, at 7:32 a.m.

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“The Perfect 46” is a coming movie in which people are routinely tested to find an ideal genetic partner with whom to create a child. In the real world, things are almost as far-out. Some companies can screen and alert you to DNA variants that might combine with your partner's to produce an offspring with a rare, single-gene disease, such as cystic fibrosis. Others look for genetic indications that you could develop a disease down the road, so you can make decisions about prevention or medical treatment.

But there are lots of questions about how reliable these mail-in-a-vial-of-blood-or-saliva genetic tests are. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ordered one big-buzz company to stop shipping its $99 spit kit. Seems the company can't prove the accuracy of its tests for 254 genetic problems and was suggesting what people might do with test results. That could have devastating consequences. For example, a false-positive result for a high-risk gene-linked condition such breast cancer might lead a woman to have a mastectomy when she didn't really need to consider having one.

So whether you're curious about your genome or you have a family history of a disorder that you want to avoid passing on to your children, get tested only if advised by a doctor who’s trained in genetic medicine – and have a second test done to confirm results. These tests will get more accurate, but they aren’t there yet.

Sweat to stay young

A real fountain of youth is inside you: the sweat that comes from physical activity. A new eight-year study looked at 3,500 folks around age 65: Those who’d always gotten moderate or vigorous exercise were seven times more likely to have healthy aging; even those who didn’t exercise until they were already old tripled their chances of a healthy old age. When you're sweatin’ and smilin’, dementia and depression, as well as heart disease, cancer and Type 2 diabetes, just happen less often.

The two keys to keeping active – or to getting movin’ – as you age: Having a group or partner to do it with, and finding an activity you enjoy. So sign up for a group class at the gym or get a workout buddy or online coach to support you. And experiment with walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, yoga and strength-building or flexibility exercises to see what sustains your interest. Then sweat it out for at least 30 minutes daily! P.S. You cut the risk of stroke 20 percent by sweating four times a week.

3-D mammograms

Nothing about 3-D ever has been as life-changing as the way 3-D in mammograms can “see” breast tissue. Digital breast tomosynthesis, the name for these high-tech trouble-spotters, can identify 22 percent more cancers and avoid many false-positives (and unnecessary biopsies, particularly among women with dense breast tissue and younger women) that result from use of conventional digital mammogram machines.

And they’re potentially lifesaving for people with a family history of BRCA-2 breast cancer. New information reveals that family members who test BRCA-2-free are still at a much-increased risk of breast cancer, compared with folks with who have no family history of BRCA-2. For them, mammograms need to be as accurate as possible, every time, and 3-D images are just that.

Other people who might be grateful for the imaging power of tomosynthesis? Anyone with high LDL cholesterol is at increased risk for estrogen-dependent breast cancer (about 75 percent of breast cancers). That’s because a byproduct of cholesterol acts like estrogen in the body, making folks with high cholesterol more vulnerable. Regular 3-D screenings can catch breast cancer at its earliest and most curable stage.

Bonus tip: If you have elevated LDL, taking a cholesterol-lowering statin and aspirin are smart ways to reduce breast-cancer risk; statins reduce the estrogen-like powers of that cholesterol byproduct, and a daily aspirin cuts the risk by 40 percent.

8 healthy gifts

Want to bring a little good cheer into a friend's life for various occasions scattered over the New Year? (Not a bad resolution.) Here’s our list of eight mini-gifts that will make everyone healthier and happier (including you, because giving is a great feeling).

1. A half-pound of walnuts. Eating 12 halves daily may increase lifespan 20 percent! And munching six halves 30 minutes before mealtime is an effective way to control appetite.

2. A half-pound of (70 percent cacao) chocolate. One ounce daily may cut heart attack and stroke risk 30 percent while preventing some cancers. And, oh yeah, it tastes great!

3. A pound of coffee (320 ounces of java). Your daily dose (three cups) can cut stroke risk by 30 percent and may help prevent some cancers, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease and Type 2 diabetes.

4. One bottle of wine. Provides five to seven glasses; one a day for women, two for men. Boosts good HDL and reduces lousy LDL, keeping everything from the brain to sexual functions up and running.

5. Garlic goodies. Garlic-infused olive oil and a garlic press deliver an immune-boosting, heart-healthy flavor!

6. Jump rope, pedometer and exercise bands. Nothing relieves stress, lowers heart disease risk and protects against diabetes like exercise; cool “toys” are a great incentive to get going!

7. Lavender aromatherapy oil. Give the gift of sleep; sniff the scent for 20 minutes before bedtime. Then, sweet dreams!

8. Thank-you notes. Expressing gratitude improves everyone's happiness quotient.

Sugar’s not all nice

A recent study of postmenopausal women found that those who drink a lot of sweetened beverages had a 78 percent greater risk of estrogen-dependent type I endometrial cancer (the most common form) compared with women who don't consume such liquid sugar bombs. And we've known for a long time that anyone who drinks a lot of sweetened beverages is at increased risk of obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Drinking one can of sugary soda a day can up your diabetes risk 18 percent, and added sugars fuel the growth and spread of prostate and breast cancers.

So what's our trick for giving beverages a flavor boost and a touch of sweetness?

Cinnamon. It tastes and smells great, and one study found taking a 500 mg capsule of cinnamon twice a day for 90 days significantly lowers A1C levels (a measure of your blood sugar levels for the past three months). Cinnamon also lowers lousy LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, increases good HDL cholesterol, and decreases BMI and weight.

Try it in coffee or tea, on cereal and whole-grain toast, and add it to casseroles, stir fries and roasted veggies.

Mehmet Oz, M.D., is host of "The Dr. Oz Show," and Mike Roizen, M.D., is chief wellness officer and chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic.

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