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Senior Living: Your genes tell a story that can be passed down for generations

Your genetic history reveals a great deal about you, such as your eye color and your ancestry. Your genetic make-up can also provide clues about your health, including your risk for certain types of cancer. This is done through genetic testing, which is a type of medical test that identifies changes in chromosomes, genes or proteins. 

Genetic testing vs. genetic counseling

Karen Lappen, MS

The results of a genetic test can confirm or rule out a suspected genetic condition or help determine a person’s chance of developing or passing on a genetic disorder.

Genetic counseling is a one-to-two hour consultation with a licensed genetic counselor. During this consultation, the counselor will analyze your family cancer patterns, explain how genes are inherited and explain the difference between hereditary and sporadic cancer. You also will discuss the ethical, legal and social implications associated with genetic testing to help you decide if the benefits of genetic testing outweigh the risks, including emotional, social and financial risks.

Misconceptions about genetic testing for older adults

One of the biggest misconceptions about genetic testing for older adults is that someone is too old for it to be beneficial. Since health professionals are looking for genes you have had since you were born, you’re never too old for genetic testing. 

Regardless of age, if you have cancer, finding out if you carry a predisposition for that cancer could potentially help your oncologist determine the best course of treatment for you. The results can also tell your healthcare provider what other cancers you may be at risk for and discuss screening and surgical options to reduce that type of cancer. 

If you have been previously diagnosed with cancer, genetic counseling/testing can help determine if your diagnosis has a hereditary component. This information can lead to specific medical management recommendations and can determine if your family members may have similar hereditary risks.

 If you have not been diagnosed with cancer, genetic counseling can help to plan the most informative testing strategy for your family.

Is genetic counseling right for you?

Genetic testing most commonly looks for genes that affect risks for breast, colorectal, ovarian, uterine, prostate or pancreatic cancers. 

A consultation with a cancer genetic counselor is recommended for individuals who have any personal or family history of:

  • Cancer diagnosis at a young age (usually before age 50);
  • Multiple primary cancers in the same person;
  • The same type of cancer in two or more close relatives on the same side of the family;
  • A family pattern of related cancer types;
  • Certain rare cancers or tumor types; and
  • A known genetic mutation.

Consumer based genetic testing

Over the last decade, dozens of companies began offering consumer genetic testing for a variety of purposes. Some companies combine this service with ancestry testing and some also offer a health section. 

The difference with this type of test is there is no healthcare provider involved in the process and it is not as comprehensive as those offered through a healthcare provider. Genetic counselors are licensed professionals with special education and training who interpret the genetic test results and provide you with an individualized cancer risk analysis. Investigating if you or your family members are at an increased risk for cancer can be overwhelming, which is why it’s important to have a professional guide you through this process. 

Understanding your insurance options

Genetic counselors are experts in understanding insurance coverage for genetic testing. Each insurance company has specific criteria for coverage. Most insurance companies will cover genetic testing when it is medically recommended. 

Coverage for genetic testing can only be determined after a full evaluation of your medical and family history by a genetic counselor and will be explained to you before you decide whether or not to undergo testing. Here are some general insurance guidelines: 

  • Genetic counseling may be considered preventative healthcare and is a covered benefit under most commercial insurance plans;  
  • If you have an HMO plan, an authorization from your insurance company is typically required;
  • Medicare typically covers genetic tests only when a beneficiary has signs or symptoms that can be further clarified by diagnostic testing. Medicare also covers some genetic tests that assess an individual’s ability to metabolize certain drugs; 
  • If genetic counseling is not a covered benefit of your insurance plan, a self-pay option is available; and
  • The genetic counseling community is knowledgeable about sponsored programs that often cover the costs of testing for those whose insurance won’t cover it and are unable to self-pay. 

If you’re interesting in genetic testing, talk to your primary care physician or schedule an appointment with a licensed genetic counselor at the MemorialCare Todd Cancer Institute at Long Beach Medical Center by calling 562-933-RISK (7475). 

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Source: Orange County Register

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