Better Education Needed About Obesity-related Genetic Testing, Study of College Students Suggests

Marisa Wexler MS avatar

by Marisa Wexler MS |

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genetic variants and obesity risk

Perceived social norms have a big impact on college students’ attitudes toward genetic testing for obesity-related genes — which may be due to a lack of education about these tests, a new study shows.

The study, “What Motivates Individuals to Get Obesity Related Direct-To-Consumer Genetic Tests? A Reasoned Action Approach,” was published in the American Journal of Health Education.

Because genetics play an important role in determining an individual’s risk for obesity, it has long been thought that genetic testing for obesity-related genes might be a way to identify those at highest risk. Such testing would allow these individuals to be given personalized care — be it medication or lifestyle changes — that can help ameliorate their risk.

Historically, the main obstacle for genetic testing has been cost and logistical issues. However, in recent years, Obesity Related Direct-to-Consumer Genetic Tests (ODTCGTs) have become available. Since these tests can be completed at home and generally only cost a few hundred dollars, they may allow individuals to better assess their genetic risk of obesity. But this still requires people to seek out and use such tests.

This led the researchers behind the new study to wonder: what motivates people to get ODTCGTs?

To find out, the team constructed an online survey consisting of questions on people’s attitudes toward ODTCGTs and related topics. For instance, one question on the survey was, “If I get a genetic test for the obesity gene within the next 12 months, I will prevent myself from being overweight.” Most questions gave a seven-point scale for answers, from -3 to +3. A -3 represented strong negative attitudes, while a +3 indicated a strong positive response; a zero represented no opinion.

A total of 288 college students completed the survey. The average age of the participants was 25 years, and the group was predominantly female (69.1%) and white (75.6%). The researchers noted that this population is not representative of the U.S. or the world. As such, future studies in different demographics are warranted, they said.

Overall, just under half (48.8%) of the respondents reported having heard of obesity-related genes. Only 13.4% reported familiarity with genetic testing for such genes. These respondents had significantly higher scores on the questionnaire overall, suggesting that increased knowledge about these tests tends to make people more interested in getting them.

Generally, the respondents were not very motivated to get genetic tests, with an average score of -1.58 for questions related to the participants’ intention to undergo testing.

The researchers next used statistical models to see what factors appeared to have the greatest impact on respondents’ attitudes. They found that perceived norms — how the individual viewed the attitudes of those close to them, like friends and relatives — accounted for a significant portion of variation in intention to get tested. Norm scores generally explained around 60% of the variance, with some small differences across models.

The reasons for this aren’t totally clear — and indeed, it is impossible to infer a cause-and-effect relationship from this kind of data. However, the researchers speculated that the high influence of perceived norms may be due, in part, to a lack of education about such genetic tests.

“Since the ODTCGT is a relatively new technology, individuals often lack sufficient awareness about the science behind ODTCGT,” the researchers said. “Thus, individuals are more likely to make their decisions based on social expectations. In other words, without understanding how ODTCGT works, individuals’ behavioral intentions are likely formed by observing what others are doing.”

The study’s results highlight the need for better lay public-focused education about what ODTCGTs are and what the potential benefits and risks of such testing are.

“Developments in precision medicine, personalized medicine, and DNA sequencing technologies have made direct-to-consumer genetic tests more accessible and affordable than ever before,” the researchers said. “Thus, it is important for public health educators to educate adults, their peers, family members, and school personnel on the potential health benefits that can be gained from getting a genetic test.”

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