A few weeks ago, I got my DNA test results from 23andMe. They analyze approximately one million SNPs from your DNA and store the results in a database. They match your DNA to scores of known disease risks, and deduce several other things from your genes. In addition to the many things they test for, you can do your own queries to see how your SNPs match up with almost any study you find. On prompting from relatives, I manually looked up the SNPs associated with Neanderthal admixture, and confirmed that I do have Neanderthal ancestors (as nearly all of us do).
My primary motivation for running the test was to see if I was at risk for Alzheimer’s. My mother’s father died from Alzheimer’s, so I had reason to be concerned. And ever since reading “Flowers for Algernon” at age 12, I’ve felt that Alzheimer’s would be an especially poignant way to die. Since age 17, I’ve kept current on Alzheimer’s research, taken supplements intended to slow Alzheimer’s, and done brain exercises intended to keep my mind in shape.
Although 23andMe don’t directly test for Alzheimer’s, you can get a good picture by manually looking at a few SNPs. It turns out that I am at very low risk for Alzheimer’s. I have been outrunning the wrong disease my entire life.
Instead, I’m at elevated risk for prostate cancer, which doesn’t worry me much. Nearly one third of men with my specific genetic variation will get prostate cancer by age 90, as opposed to a bit more than one sixth of men in general. Prostate cancer is quite survivable, and I know how to manage it.
If I’m going to die of a genetically influenced disease, it will probably be esophageal cancer. One in 300 men with my specific genetic variation get esophageal cancer by age 90, as opposed to something like 1 in 600 generally. I’m addicted to Hunan and Sichuan food, which increases my odds. Even if that triples my chances (and I doubt it), that’s still only a 1% chance of getting esophageal cancer. However, those odds are uncomfortably high, since esophageal cancer is painful and deadly. Atheist Christopher Hitchens and actor Michael Douglas are both attempting to fight esophageal cancer right now. Since America is financially bankrupt and politically gridlocked for the foreseeable future, I’m pretty sure that now is the best level of healthcare I’ll ever see in my lifetime. It’s all downhill from here; at least for the next 30 years. If I contract esophageal cancer, a cure is vanishingly improbable, and I’ll hope at best for good hospice care and cheap painkillers.
So, I will lay off of the spicy food.
Other than my 0.3% chance of dying a painful death from esophageal cancer, my genes look pretty good. For Christians, in particular, Alzheimer’s poses some extremely difficult questions. I’m happy that I can passively evaluate those questions now; I no longer have a dog in the hunt. The fact that a Christian would find a painful death from esophageal cancer vastly preferable to Alzheimer’s is quite revealing, and probably interesting to those who are curious about the Christian mentality.
Ambiguously, I’m genetically suited to be a sprinter rather than a distance athlete. This matches my experience. On nearly every other score directly measured by 23andMe, I win the genetic lottery unambiguously. Genetic variations associated with IQ, memory, and general health — 100% positive.
Should I direct these advantages entirely toward thwarting the primary risk for HOW I DIE? To do so would be to commit McNamara’s Fallacy, and I’m certain to die one way or another, eventually. Obsessing about only those factors that I can measure is probably counterproductive. I continue to take supplements and stock the Tamiflu, IOSAT, and other emergency supplies. And I will cut back on the spicy food. But I will ultimately die some “how”. Only now, it’s not likely that my death will involve severe dementia, schizophrenia, or other mental breakdown. My new poignant death to outrun is a slow and painful death, and that’s OK by me.