Would You Want to Know How You Will Die?

Would you want to know how you will die? Usually when this is a movie plot point, the protagonist dies by some very specific method that he tries to avoid and in doing so inevitably causes to happen. And you walk out of the theater laughing at some message about fate. But this is real life, and barring a freak car accident, I will be able to face this exact question for perhaps the first time in history.

I will learn how I am going to die.

How am I going to get this information? Well, I took part in a study a few months ago where the had a bunch of people spit in tubes, sequenced their DNA, and then will (essentially) plot everyone’s genetic code against their SAT scores. The goal of the project is to find the genetic markers for intelligence. On my end, as compensation for participating, they are sending me all the genetic data they collected from my spit sample for free, and it arrives in a week or so. Essentially, I get to be one of the first people to see their own genetic code and know, on a basic biological level, who I really am. I get to be genotyped.

What is genotyping? Well it isn’t a sequence of my entire DNA. Remember the oft-quoted statistic of how humans’ and chimpanzees’ DNA are 98.5% the same? Well, the genetic similarity between different humans is around 99.9%, and it turns out that ignoring the bulk of a person’s genetic code and focusing in on the 0.1% that varies from person to person is a lot cheaper, faster, and nearly as meaningful as sequencing the whole thing. Eventually, in the future, we will have cheap whole-genome sequencing, but right now this partial sequencing is almost as good. So that’s what genotyping is – looking at the 0.1% of genes that make someone unique.

Colored picture of the human karyotype (all 23 chromosomes)

There’s a host of benefits to this, such as learning your true ancestry, seeing if you have any cool rare mutations, and picking out any medications you are likely to have a bad reaction to. But the most useful outcome of this is learning what diseases I am predisposed to. WebMD tells me that the risk for type 2 diabetes is 30-70% genetic, 20% of all Alzheimer’s cases have genetic roots, and 17% of all the risk of heart disease (my grandfather has a pacemaker) comes from one’s DNA. There are tools out there that run your genes through Bayesian statistical analysis to spit out how much a particular gene raises your risk factors for this or that disease, and the first thing I’m doing when I get my own genetic data is going to one of them and plugging it in.

Of course, the answer to ‘do I want to know’, is clearly and unequivocally, ‘yes‘. And it should be for you too. Because the way you and I are going to die is not going to be through some mystical prophecy where an evil rival meets us in a duel where only one can survive. It is going to be, very likely, something common such as heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, or a stroke. (Smoking and obesity top the list if you like cigarettes or are fat.) And thankfully for me and my evil rival, these are all diseases where we know how to reduce risk. By taking the results from my genotyping and seeing my comparative likelihood for various diseases, I will be able to target the ones I am most likely to die from and start developing habits that will reduce my chance of having them. I’m still young, and if I start now, I fully expect to be able to add several long years to my life. And who wouldn’t want that?

Life expectancy in the US, 1900-2009

The great thing is, I’m not the only one who will benefit from this information. Genetics being genetics, my family will be able to use this same data. The rule of thumb is, every step away from yourself halves the likelihood that a family member shares one of your genes. So, my parents, sister, (future) children, and dad’s twin all have a 50% chance of having a particular one of my genes. My grandparents, biological aunts and uncles, and father’s twin’s daughters all have a 25% chance of having a particular gene of mine, and my great grandparents and first cousins have a 12.5% chance. So when I get this data back, I will share it with the family and hopefully they can use it as a guideline for being healthier and living longer in their own lives. I don’t want to have to see someone leave a minute before they have to.

For the rest of you, getting genotyped is cheap. 23andMe is the leading provider and charges only $99, with the cost dropping every year (there are other options as well). Honestly, this is an absolute no-brainer, for the value of the personal information you get out of it, and with a completely affiliate-free voice I can’t recommend another service more highly. The information is only going to get more useful too, as more research into various genes is done and doctors start to include personalized medicine into their treatments and diagnosis. Seriously, go do this. Odds are it will save your life.

I’ll post again later this week when I find out some of my more interesting and unique genes. Keep your eyes open!

Edit 7/10: Got an email from BGI saying there were some delays and I should expect the results in July. I’ll update when I get them.

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