Citizens claiming racial diversity increased by 276% in the 2020 census, leading experts to wonder if racial diversity is increasing or if people are simply electing to identify as such and how this trend will affect healthcare
The last US census showed an interesting change compared to previous census surveys. More Americans identified themselves as racially diverse than in previous censuses. Scientists in multiple specialty areas—including demographics, sociology, genetics, and more—are asking why.
According to federal Census Bureau data, in the most recent census, people who identify as more than one race rose by 276%! Scientists are only just beginning to hypothesize the reasons for this increase, but three potential factors, NPR reported, have emerged:
More children are being born to parents who identify with racial groups that are different from one another.
People are reconsidering what they want the government to know about their identities, according to Duke University Press.
The increased incidence of DNA testing for cultural heritage may be an additional factor in the different ways people identified themselves during the census, driving its popularity, NPR noted. More people are purchasing at-home DNA tests to learn where their ancestors lived and came from, and their family’s genealogy.
“Exactly how big of an effect these tests had on census results is difficult to pin down,” NPR reported. “But many researchers agree that as the cost of at-home kits fell in recent years, they have helped shape an increasing share of the country’s ever-changing ideas about the social construct that is race.”
How the Census Alters Government Policy
Pew Research noted that, although only about 16% of Americans have taken an ancestry DNA test, the marketing efforts of “companies such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com, which operates the AncestryDNA service, should not be underestimated,” NPR reported. They have a wide reach, and those efforts could be impacting how people think about race and ethnic identity.
For most of human history, social experience and contemporary family history have been the drivers of how people identified themselves. However, low-cost DTC genetic testing may be changing that.
One concern that sociologists and demographers have about this trend is that the US census is an important tool in policy, civil rights protections, and even how researchers measure things like healthcare access disparities.
“You’re going to have a lot more people who are not part of marginalized groups in terms of their social experiences claiming to be part of marginalized groups. When it comes to understanding discrimination or inequality, we’re going have very inaccurate estimates,” says Wendy Roth, PhD, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, told NPR.
They developed the “genetic options” theory, “to account for how genetic ancestry tests influence consumers’ ethnic and racial identities.” They wrote, “The rapid growth of genetic ancestry testing has brought concerns that these tests will transform consumers’ racial and ethnic identities, producing “geneticized” identities determined by genetic knowledge.”
However, a more healthcare-related motivation for taking a DTC DNA test is to learn about one’s potential risks for familial chronic health conditions, such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, etc.
“Whether that occurs through your primary care doctor, your large integrated health network, or your payor, I think there will be profound changes in society’s tolerance for using genetics for prevention,” he told GenomeWeb.
Regardless, as Dark Daily reported in 2020, sales of genetic tests from Ancestry and 23andMe show the market is cooling. Thus, with less than 20% of the population having taken DNA tests, and with sales slowing, genetics testing may not affect responses on the next US census, which is scheduled for April 1, 2030.
In the meantime, clinical laboratory managers should recognize how and why more consumers are interested in ordering their own medical laboratory tests and incorporate this trend into their lab’s strategic planning.
At-home genetic test kits face scrutiny for providing information that may provide consumers with an incomplete picture of their genetic health risks and ancestry
Genetic testing for disease risk and heritage are hugely popular. But though clinical laboratory and pathology professionals understand the difference between a doctor-ordered genetic health risk (GHR) test and a direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic test, the typical genetic test customer may not. And misunderstanding the results of a DTC at-home genetic test can lead to confusion, loss of privacy, and potential harm, according to Consumer Reports.
To help educate consumers about the “potential pitfalls” of at-home DTC testing kits offered by companies such as Ancestry and 23andMe, Consumer Reports has published an article, titled, “Read This Before You Buy a Genetic Testing Kit.” The article covers “four common claims from the manufacturers of these products, whether they deliver, and what to know about their potential pitfalls.”
Are Genetic Ancestry Tests Accurate?
Ancestry and 23andMe are the DTC genetic test industry leaders, with databases of genetic information about 18 million individuals and 10 million individuals respectively. According to a Consumer Reports survey, as of October 2020 about one in five Americans had taken a DTC genetic test. Reported reasons for doing so included:
66% of respondents wanted to learn more about their ancestry.
20% wanted to locate relatives.
18% wanted to learn more about their health.
11% wanted to learn if they have or are a carrier for any medical conditions.
3% wanted to get a medical test they could not get through their doctor.
As Consumer Reports notes, doctor-ordered genetic health risk (GHR) testing typically aims to answer a specific question about a patient’s risk for a certain disease. DTC at-home genetic testing, on the other hand, examines a “whole range of variants that have been linked—sometimes quite loosely—to a number of traits, some not related to your health at all.
“Think of it this way: When your doctor orders genetic testing, it’s akin to fishing for a particular fish, in a part of the ocean where it’s known to live,” Consumer Reports noted, “A DTC test is more like throwing a net into the ocean and seeing what comes back.”
In its article, Consumer Reports addressed four common DTC genetic test claims:
The Tests Can Find Far-Flung Relatives: While the tests can unearth people in its database whom you might be related to, 9% of respondents in the Consumer Reports survey discovered unsettling information about a relative.
Testing Can Uncover Where Your Ancestors Are From: Genetic tests may show the percentage of your DNA that comes from Europe or Asia or Africa, but accuracy depends on how many DNA samples a company has from a particular region. As genetic test manufacturers’ reference databases widen, a customer’s genetic ancestry test results can “change over time.” Also, finding a particular variation in genetic code does not definitively place someone in a specific region, or ethnic or racial group.
Genetic Tests Can Reveal Your Risk for Certain Diseases: Testing companies such as 23andMe are authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to offer physician-mediated tests, which are analyzed in a federally-certified clinical laboratory. However, test results may provide a false sense of security because DTC tests look for only select variants known to cause disease.
The Tests Can Tell What Diet Is Best for You: Incorporating genetic information into diet advice has the potential to be transformative, but the science is not yet there to offer personalized nutritional advice.
Consumer Reports pointed to a 2020 study published in the MDPI journal Nutrients, titled, “Direct-to-Consumer Nutrigenetics Testing: An Overview,” which evaluated 45 DTC companies offering nutrigenetics testing and found a need for “specific guidelines” and “minimum quality standards” for the services offered. For example, the study authors noted that more than 900 genetic variants contribute to obesity risk. However, weight-loss advice from DTC test companies was based on a “limited set of genetic markers.”
In the Consumer Reports article, Mwenza Blell, PhD, a biosocial medical anthropologist and Rutherford Fellow and NUAcT Fellow at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, said “genetic ancestry tests are closer to palm reading than science.”
Cheng says the ability to use flexible or health savings accounts (HSAs) to cover the cost of 23andMe’s GHR assessments, as well as the FDA’s approval of 23andMe’s Personal Genome Service Pharmacogenetic Reports test on medication metabolism, may have added to the confusion.
“This may further mislead people into thinking these tests are clinically sound. Again, they are not,” Cheng wrote.
As an oncologist, Cheng is particularly concerned about consumer GHR testing for heritable cancer risk, which screen for only a handful of genetic variants.
“The results are inadequate for most people at high risk of cancers associated with inherited mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes, including families whose members have experienced ovarian cancer, male breast cancer, multiple early breast cancers, pancreatic cancer, or prostate cancer,” Cheng wrote. “Put simply, this recreational test has zero value for the majority of people who may need it for true medical purposes.”
DTC genetic health-risk assessments may one day lead to consumers collecting samples at home for tests that aid in the diagnosis of disease. In the meantime, clinical laboratory professionals can play a role in educating the public about the limitations of current DTC genetic test offerings.