Thursday, August 19, 2010

Blissful Genetic Ignorance - Will We Want to Know Our Genomes?

A couple readers have questioned me about the Genomic Revolution, wondering if people will truly want to know their genome even if they are able. As I mentioned in a previous post, people prefer to avoid thinking about things that seem both horrifying and inevitable. This is understandable. Would a person truly want to know that they are doomed to suffer from, say, Alzheimer’s disease or some other affliction that is commonly regarded as a fate worse than death?

While I can’t speak personally for anyone other than myself, I think that most people will ultimately prefer to know. As personal genomics becomes more commonplace, the mindset of blissful genetic ignorance will probably fade away. This wouldn’t be the first time that a new medical paradigm has changed public opinion about how much they should know. In a 1961 poll, 90% of US physicians surveyed said that they wouldn’t tell their patients if they had cancer. At the time, most doctors believed that patients would be better off not knowing since little could be done. But as cancer screening and treatment became more common in the subsequent decades, this mindset vanished almost entirely. Today it is hardly even imaginable that a doctor would not tell a patient if they had cancer.

There are so many advantages in knowing what conditions we are most at risk for. Ultimately, I think the knowledge of which of our unhealthy behaviors we most need to change (and which we can indulge in), and what prescriptions are most likely to be effective for our personal genome is simply more important than the unpleasant knowledge that we will eventually develop a certain condition. Practically everyone is at risk for something, and everyone accepts this. Would it really be so much worse for our psyches to know our specific risks instead of just a vague sense that we will develop something?

Please share your opinion. Would you want to know if you would eventually develop a disease?

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