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Personalized medicine—the idea that genetic testing can reveal a person’s unique risks for various illnesses, as well as the most effective treatments—has attracted a huge amount of attention over the past few years. While the concept includes promising approaches to things like cancer treatment, much of the focus has been on using genetic risk information to motivate healthy lifestyles. In his 2015 State of the Union address, President Obama suggested that future advances in biomedicine would provide the “personalized information we need to keep ourselves and our families healthier.” Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, has suggested that personalized medicine “means taking better care of ourselves.”
In the context both men are describing—living healthier lifestyles to prevent chronic disease—the promise of personalized medicine lies in its ability to inspire behavior change. Having this genetic information isn’t inherently helpful; it’s what people do with the information that matters. But new research suggests that knowing one’s genetic risk isn’t enough to get people to quit smoking, eat better, or otherwise take actions to improve their health.
In a study published in BMJ, researchers from Cambridge University’s Health and Behavior Research Unit analyzed 18 past papers on the link between knowledge of genetic risk and health-behavior change. Their takeaway from the review: “Expectations that communicating DNA-based risk estimates changes behavior are not supported by existing evidence.”