Direct To Consumer DNA Tests: Science Or Scam?

In a commercial for one of the companies that does home DNA tests, a young, obviously middle-class, Black man gushes over having discovered some pretty cool ancestors. “I wish I could go back 100 years and just talk with them,” he sighs wistfully. No, son, you don’t want to do that. The culture shock would be too much for you. But I do understand your sentiment.

This sentiment is the reason why in 2018, almost 30 million home DNA tests were sold; more than in all previous years combined. According to MIT Technology Review, that number is expected to reach 100 million in the next two years. Whether direct to consumer DNA tests are a science or scam depends on who you ask. While I have not found a reputable geneticist who would call the tests an outright scam, many express doubts about their validity and accuracy, and some call them outright dangerous. If you have not already, there’s a good chance that you will avail yourself of this service at some time in the reasonably near future. So, let’s look at both sides of the coin:


The skepticism of the geneticists notwithstanding, there are some benefits to the home DNA tests kits:

  • entertainment value
  • clues to ancestry
  • discovering unknown siblings
  • early warning about health issues

You have to admit, it’s a lot of fun to explore your past. Many people make it a family affair to fill out the branches on the family tree. Discovering that you are a relative of a historical figure can be pretty exciting. The discoveries made on this journey can also have a positive impact on your self-esteem. Wouldn’t you hold your head a little higher if you knew that Albert Einstein was an uncle on your mother’s side 10 times removed? No wonder you’re so smart!

And finding long lost relatives can be great, too!  I have yet to watch a reunion or first time meeting between siblings and not at least choke up. Usually I bawl. Direct to consumer home DNA test results have put extra plates on many a Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner table.

The last benefit in the above list is by far the most important. Until very recently, DTC home DNA tests were pretty much limited to tracing your roots. For the most part, they still are- with one major exception. Last year, 23andMe became the first home DNA test kit to receive FDA approval to “market genetic risk information for certain conditions.” In layman’s terms that means that the FDA has given 23andMe permission to perform tests that will tell you if you are at risk for 10 different diseases, including:

  • certain types of breast cancer
  • late-onset Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease

To 23andMe’s credit, their focus has always been providing consumers with useful health-related information. CEO Anne Wojcicki says that the company is “determined to make inexpensive genetic information available without medical professionals getting in the way.” I understand what she’s saying, I’m just not crazy about the way she said it. Like any profession, the medical field has its issues. But to say that they “get in the way” of a company that does home DNA tests is, well, a bit much. The health information you can now get from 23andMe used to be available only from a doctor. It is a very good idea to get any results verified by one of the medical professionals that Ms. Wojcicki seems to hold in low regard.


On the other side of the coin, there are some significant drawbacks to direct to consumer home DNA tests. Apart from the obvious “You are not the father,” Professor Sheldon Krimsky of Tufts University says: “Make sure you are prepared for surprises, whether it’s a correct one or an incorrect one.” Drawbacks to the tests include:

  • privacy issues
  • tests can impact people who never purchased a test
  • false positive rate can be as high as 40 percent

Yep. That’s right. Up to four out of every 10 of them is just flat out wrong. That’s pretty high. And of the 60 percent or so that are correct, geneticist Adam Rutherford doesn’t have much faith in them: “Humankind is closely related and DNA will tell you little about your culture, history and identity.”

But there’s a lot more to be concerned about here than whether Queen Elizabeth was your great-great-great- great aunt. Like do you really have breast cancer. Or are you really going to get Parkinson’s disease. False negatives can have serious consequences as well. A big one is giving you a false sense of security. Since the rest of the big boys are surely going to want to get a piece of 23andMe’s “testing for health markers” pie, We can only expect the problem to get worse.

Another potential hazard of these tests is finding out information that you really didn’t want to know. In their privacy 'You are who?!'statement, Ancestry.com, who bills themselves as “the world’s largest online family history resource,” says in their privacy statement: “Once discoveries are made, we can’t undo them.” You can’t unknow that your mother is actually your grandmother, and your sister is actually your mother. It happened. Viral Thread’s advice: “Play it safe and leave the past in the past.”

Buyer Beware

If you are thinking about unraveling your DNA, your first consideration should be: What do you want to get out of the test? The answer to this question will depend on if you are interested in genealogy and genetics or present and future health risks. According to Tufts University, there are about 40 “commercial” direct to consumer home DNA testing companies. Ancestry and 23andMe are consistently ranked at the top of the list. So far, 23andMe is the only one that has FDA permission to look for health problems. There are other companies out there that can provide this information, but they are run by the medical professionals that Wojcicki seems to have issues with. According to Consumer Advocates, the top five are:

  1. Ancestry DNA
  2. My Heritage
  3. 23andMe
  4. VitaGene
  5. Orig3n

This doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the best five, but they are certainly the most popular. It is difficult to find an objective rating of the companies, so although they are not completely objective, I’m going to follow Consumer Advocate’s lead. I guess the best one for you depends on what you want to get out of the test.  According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are some questions you should keep in mind when making your decision on which company to choose:

  • who own the DNA?
  • who gets to see the information (without your name attached)?
  • how is identifyable data used?
  • can you opt out of giving genetic information to research partners?
  • can you wipe the information after the test?

Lets Talk Prices

Direct to consumer home DNA test kits run pretty much the same. Most of them have a basic kit and a premium kit. The price range is $49.95 to $99.95 with a few exceptions here and there. The Health and Ancestry kit from 23andMe clocks in at $199. Most of the companies offer online deals from time to time. There are less popular companies that offer better deals and in this particular industry, you don’t necessarily “get what you pay for.” By that I mean just because it cost more, doesn’t mean it’s better.

Be “Verwy, Verwy Careful”

If I may elaborate on Professor Kimsky’s admonition; Be sure to prepare yourself for what you might find out. The news can be just as bad as it is good. Think about what you do want to find out and weigh it against the possibility of stumbling upon something that you don’t want to find out.

And let me reiterate: If you purchase a kit for health information, verify the results with a medical professional. Home DNA testing is by no means an exact science at this point. Even the tests for your roots should not be accepted without question. Family History Daily encourages us to do our homework: “While your results may certainly contain truths, accepting your ancestry report without additional interpretation will often lead you to confusion and inaccurate assumptions about your family’s history.” 


Retirement: Can You Live On Social Security Alone?

If I ask you to say the first thing that comes to your mind when I say “social security,” you will probably say “retirement.” Wrong answer. But, it is the first thing that comes to most of our minds. You see, many of us expect to be able to live on social security when our working days are over. Not necessarily. The fact is, Social Security was never meant to be relied upon as a primary source of income during retirement. It was created as a “safety net” for retirees and the disabled.

The truth is, when you retire, and we all will at some point, it will be very difficult to live on social security alone. But unless you can find ways to boost retirement income, you might just have to.  According to the National Public Pension Coalition, at one time 88 percent of the private sector working population had a pension. As of 2016, that number was down to 33 percent.

Today, Bureau of Labor Statistics figures indicate that of 135 million full and part-time workers, only 54 percent of them participate in a workplace retirement plan, and only 23 percent of them participate in a workplace pension plan. Because of the dramatic decline in workplace retirement and pension plans, for many, Social Security may be the only income they have upon retirement. And, for many, it probably won’t be enough.

Before Social Security

Huey Long, Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator; organized “Share the Wealth” program in 1930

Prior to the Social Security Act, there were many attempts to address the needs of Americans who were either too old, or too infirm, to work. Who would, these days, probably be forced to live on Social Security alone. Huey Long, Governor of Louisiana, U.S. Senator, and radical populist, proposed what he called the “Share the Wealth” program in 1930. This program mandated that the Federal Government guarantee every family in the nation an annual income of $5000 so that they could have the necessities of life, including “a home, a job, a radio and an automobile.”

And then there was Francis E. Townsend, a doctor from Long Beach, California. In 1933, he found himself unemployed at age 66 with no savings and no way to financially support himself. As a result of this experience, he devised the “Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan,” or “Townsend Plan” for short. It required that the government provide a pension of $200 a month to every citizen age 60 and over. There were only three requirements:

  • the person had to be retired
  • their past life is free from habitual criminality
  • the money had to be spent in the U.S. by the pensioner within 30 days of receipt

There were others: the “Ham and Eggs” movement proposed that the state of California issue a special currency to give every unemployed Californian over fifty $30 every Thursday; the Bigelow Plan in Ohio sought to guarantee every unemployed Ohio resident over sixty $50 a month ($80 if you were living with a spouse). Life after gainful employment was the common denominator for all the programs. Few contested the need for relief for retirees, the elderly, and the disabled, but how to accomplish this objective produced a plethora of suggested resolutions.

The pre-Social Security Act programs had two things in common:

  • most were state-level programs
  • none of them ever became law

Here Comes the Feds

In the “good ol’ days” family was all the social security we needed. Between the community and the church, the elderly and the disabled had their essential needs met. But as the country grew, and industry exploded, it became more and more difficult for communities to take care of their own. In his “Message of the President to Congress” in June 1934, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security.” Something had to be done.

That “something” turned out to be the Social Security Act, part of FDR’s New Deal, enacted August 14, 1935. According to Wikipedia, FDR never meant for retirees to live on Social Security alone. The Act was “an attempt to limit what was seen as dangers in modern American life, including old age, poverty, unemployment, and the burdens of women and fatherless children.”

As lofty an ideal as that was, the initial Act had some serious problems. Workers in agricultural labor, domestic service, teachers, nurses and librarians were excluded from coverage. Since these were jobs held primarily by women and minorities, most of them were not eligible for Social Security benefits. While credible arguments can be made about this being – or not being – intentional, the fact remains that nearly two-thirds of all African Americans, and just over half of all women, were employed in jobs that did not meet program requirements.

That being said, the Social Security Act did have a wide range of programs designed to provide socioeconomic support to those at the bottom of the totem pole. In addition to retirement benefits, it included unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, aid to dependent children, and state grants for medical care. The program has been forced to evolve with the nation. It has been tweaked constantly to keep it relevant. Some notable changes over the years include:

  • 1939 – survivors’ benefits; increased benefit amount
  • 1954 – disability insurance
  • 1965 – Medicare
  • 1972 – automatic cost of living adjustment (COLA)
  • 1974 – Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
  • 1996 – no longer eligible for disability if drugs or alcohol a factor

Let’s Run the Numbers

Most economics pundits agree that to retire comfortably you need at least 1.5 million bucks in the bank or 10 to 12 times your current salary. The actual amount will depend on how healthy you are, where you live, how long you live, and how good you want to live. Carolyn O’Hara, AARP, says that we will need 100 percent of our pre-retirement income for at least 10 years after retirement and after that, our monthly retirement income should be at least 80 percent of our monthly pre-retirement income.

Obviously, this cannot be accomplished with Social Security alone. But for many, Social Security will indeed be their only source of retirement income. According to Investopedia, a leading source of financial content on the web, 21 percent of married couples and 43 percent of single individuals over 65 depend on Social Security for 90 percent of their nest egg. And that’s the good news.

The bad news is: due to changing demographics, the number of retiring baby-boomers, and the decrease in money paid into the system, Forbes predicts that by 2034 Social Security recipients will see their benefits cut by 25 percent. Consequently, it is no surprise that according to a new Gallup report, 46 percent of the people on the cusp of retirement say they will not have enough money.

What to Do, What to Do?

Although I may have painted a pretty gloomy picture so far, it’s really not as bad as it may seem. That’s because there are some things we can do to dramatically improve the situation. It’s all about being proactive. According to USA Today, the three best ways to increase the amount of money available at retirement is:

  • work longer
  • increase retirement plan contributions
  • monetize your hobbies

Working longer is the least attractive – yet most productive – of these options. If you retire at 66 instead of 62, your Social Security check will be 25 percent higher. If you wait until you’re 70, it will be 32 percent higher. However, for many, working longer is not an option.

Door number two is not an option for many, either. The Aspen Institute reports that 55 million American workers have no retirement plan contributions to increase. The third option has worlds of potential. Whatever you like to do, with good planning and hard work, you can make some money doing it. It will take time, and it will take money.

The best time to start working enjoying life after retirement is now. If you wait until you retire, you’ll have the time but you probably won’t have the money. If you have already retired, it’s not too late, but you’ve got to step your game up. A few hundred extra bucks a month can mean the difference between surviving and living.

What Not to Do

Don’t believe the hype! The internet is replete with offers to show you how to make millions from home in a week. Those that offer the most money in the least amount of time are to be avoided at all costs. And speaking of costs, hold on to your money. According to the BBB, legitimate employers do not require fees or investments as a condition of employment, while most work-at-home scams do.

Typical work-at-home scams include:

  • online surveys
  • envelope stuffing
  • medical billing
  • data entry

There are some legitimate work-at-home opportunities out there, but you must be diligent in your efforts to find them.

Take Matters Into Your Own Hands

In the final analysis, regardless of where you are on the road to retirement (including being already there), you have more control over the quality of your retirement than you may realize. Commit yourself to beefing up that nest egg. That Social Security check is only going to stretch so far.


Good Audio Books: Listening (As Well As Reading) Is Fundamental Too!

There’s nothing like holding a book in your hand. Even if you have no intentions of reading it! They make great props. Books just make you look smarter. For this reason alone, I do not expect books to meet the heart-breaking fate that befell vinyl records. Any significant literary work will always be available in book form. Having said all that, let me make a case for adding good audio books to your library:

First, a Little History…

For us “Babyboomers”, audiobooks are a relatively new medium. “Gen Xers” and “Millenials” grew up with them. Audiobooks grew out of several programs created to produce written material in a form that the blind and visually impaired could digest. The first such “book” was produced in America in 1934 on vinyl records that were limited to only 15 minutes of recorded material on each side. They were called “talking books.”

Things began to pick up for the upstart medium, slowly but surely. Poet and writer Dylan Thomas’s 1952 recording of poetry by Cademon Records is credited with launching the audiobook industry in the United States. By this time, the “talking books” were produced on vinyl LPs that could hold 45 minutes of material. This was an improvement, but not by much. The minimal recording time restricted material to mostly poetry and instructional material. Good audio books would require a prohibitive number of LPs.

By 1969, The medium of choice for “talking books” was tape. Cassette tapes to be exact. This held true until the ’80s, when CDs became the industry standard for recording pretty much everything. However, they still had the same problem that the LPs had, albeit to a lesser degree: recording space. It just took too many cassettes or CDs to produce an unabridged literary work. Consequently, “talking books” were limited primarily to an abridged version of the work, and instructional and educational material.

Hmm… this looks like a job for… technology! Enter the very first digital media player, circa 1997. It could hold up to two hours of material and sold for around $200. That lit the fuse. All printed material – abridged and unabridged – became fair game. “Talking books” (deemed “audiobooks” by the Audio Publishers Association in 1994) began to outstrip the print medium. Public awareness was greatly increased when audiobooks became available in 2003 on ITunes. Today’s smart phones and tablets can hold hundreds of hours of material and with an obscene number of good audiobook titles available these days, the industry is pulling in more than three billion dollars a year.


Audiobook Pros:


Let’s say that like most people, you just don’t feel that listening to a book is actually “reading.” Well, it isn’t. However, listening does have some advantages over reading. One of the biggest ones is that you can multitask while you enjoy a good audio book. You’d be surprised (or maybe you wouldn’t) at how much you can get done while listening to Michael Wolff dissect the Trump administration in “Fire and Fury.”

Audiobooks also allow you to really use your imagination to put yourself “on location.” Sure you can do that with conventional books, but you can’t close your eyes. Other pros:

  • more durable than paper books
  • they can actually help you with speaking
  • a good narrator can really add to your enjoyment of the book
  • audio books cost less than hardbacks

Audiobook Cons:

Well, the biggest one is, it ain’t a book. And, as Alex Clark of “The Guardian” newspaper so eloquently puts it, we are “held hostage to someone else’s interpretation.” They are also dependent on technology. If you have trouble with your listening device, it’s a wrap. And, you must have a bank card! You can only order and download audiobooks on the internet. More potential tech issues. You can get books on CDs from the bookstore, but the internet is the sole distributor of audiobooks. Other cons:

  • you may not like the voice of the reader
  • they can discourage reading
  • mind tends to wander more than when reading

Are Audiobooks For You?

Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Although some more than others, everybody can enjoy a good audio book at some point. After all, all of the best sellers are on audio books. There are a couple of demographics, however, that audiobooks are ideally suited for: chronic multitaskers and people really into DIY and self help.  Hey, I know a guy who built a house while listening to an audiobook on how to build a house!  Not really, but it could happen!  If you travel a lot, audiobooks make a great traveling companion. Obviously if you have vision problems, audiobooks are the way to go. Or if your eyes just get tired easily, go audio.  If you 

If you get distracted easily, you might have a problem sticking with an audiobook. Unlike a conventional book, you can’t just go back a couple of pages. Doing something else while you listen is not necessarily distracting. That’s the aforementioned multitasking. Getting distracted is when your mind goes to a different place and you realize several minutes later that you were supposed to be listening to a book.

Another pretty cool thing about audiobooks is that they are available immediately. You don’t have to go to the bookstore, or wait for it to come through the mail. Just click on the button, and “whoop! Dere it is!”

It Doesn’t Have to be One or the Other

There is indeed a place for audiobooks in everybody’s library. However, they will take some getting used to. I’ve been listening to audiobooks for several years now, but I still feel like I’m cheating on the book. As I mentioned before, I am not alone in my perceived infidelity. I have not talked to a single person who listens to audiobooks regularly who does not share this feeling. Not to worry, though, the future of books is pretty secure.

That’s because we all enjoy curling up by the fire with a good book. Few of us have ever done it, but we’re all “gonna do it one day,” and this collective

Photo by 2Photo Pots on Unsplash

“gonna do it” will keep books around for quite some time. Besides, whoever heard of an “audioworm”?

In the final analysis, audiobooks were never meant to compete with conventional books. They were initially created to serve a population that could not be reached with books. While that is still a critical audience, today convenience plays a big part in the decision to go audio. Die hard fans of books tend to view audiobooks as somehow inferior to their physical counterpart,

but it’s the same book, just a different medium.  So, granted us “Babyboomers” and “GenX”ers grew up being admonished that “reading is fundamental,” when it comes to good audio books, listening can be fundamental too!