Fit in my 40s: ‘A DNA test is like going to a fortune teller, with science’

Photograph by Kellie French

The past is a foreign country, but then you get to an age when the present seems a little exotic, also. Young people are weird about their health, is what I’m trying to say. I’ve met some, and they seem OK, but you only need to look at the things they do. They have gone beyond exercise. They have gone beyond even optimising their workout. The big thing in fitness now is personalisation. This means so much more than telling the cross-training machine how much you weigh.

It means a DNA test; it means a microbiome test, which analyses your gut environment. It means sending off your worst excretions – stools and saliva, I mean, not poetry – in fancy freepost boxes. It means being told about preconditions for diseases you don’t want to think about, and food intolerances you don’t believe in. When you have all the information, you will supposedly know how hard to exercise and how often, and how many artichokes to eat, though the answer is always, I think, “more than you eat currently”. I started, as always, from a position of deep philosophical scepticism.

Then I saw someone else’s sample results, and it is compelling, I tell you – like going to a fortune teller, except with science. The metabolism check tells you how well you neutralise caffeine and how predisposed you are to high glucose levels. If people of your genotype typically have high triglyceride levels, you’d reduce your consumption of refined carbohydrate – but I guess, though maybe I’m over-extrapolating, if you have the low-triglyceride gene, that lets you eat cake. Every vitamin is there, along with your unique capacity to produce or absorb or do something useful with it. How fast you adapt to strength training, how much lactate you produce… Seriously, things you would you never know about yourself in a lifetime’s observation, things you would never even think to ask.

Sergey Musienko co-founded Atlas Biomed, which is doing my biome test (FitnessGenes is doing the DNA). He summarises the frontier of medical tech with four Ps: personalisation, prediction, prevention (if you know what you’re likely to get, why wait to get it?) and participation (“The question becomes, ‘How can I stay healthy?’ rather than, ‘How do I cure this condition?’”).

The advance with DNA has been that the tests are consumer-ready – for about £149. “A decade ago it was more of a general concept rather than an applicable technology.” Gut biome research is much newer, a very modish area of study; this test will set you back £125. I haven’t got my results yet, but I am completely sold. If you knew what it had cost me to get stools into an envelope, you would understand what a big deal that is.

This week I learned

A DNA test can predict susceptibility to more diseases than just the headliners: also gout, bronchial asthma, osteoporosis, type 2 diabetes.

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