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Kaleidoscope of the Heart: Your genes don't say everything about who you are

Rika Kayama

Advances in medicine are moving at incredible speed. There are now very simple genetic tests available that use only the subject's saliva. In the future, it may be possible to quickly and easily determine whether a person has a high genetic risk of developing cancer or Alzheimer's disease.

    When I told a class of university students about this and asked if they would want to take such a test, most shook their heads "no." I pressed them, asking, "What if your romantic partner said they wanted you to take a DNA test before getting married? What would you do then?" Some people in the class replied firmly, "That's a human rights issue, and I'd say no."

    Other students probed the issue further, with one pointing out that a company asked for the results of the student's latest physical at a final-stage job interview. I remember that I, too, have provided my medical details when taking a job at a hospital or university.

    A little research showed that a lot of companies ask for medical exam results, based on a duty to carry out physicals at the time of employment. As this information is collected when a person is actually hired, it doesn't affect applicant screening decisions. I told the students this, but since we'd just been talking about genetic testing, some in the class were skeptical.

    "Really?" one said. "I have a chronic medical condition, and I think that would almost certainly put me at a disadvantage (in the job market) if I had to give my medical exam results to an employer."

    From a company's perspective, I suppose it's desirable to get a grip on the health conditions of new hires so they can assign them to posts most suited to their constitutions. However, if genetic testing is simplified to the point that they can be administered to anyone and everyone, it's certainly possible that companies will look at a young applicant's results and say, "This person has a lot of genes that make them vulnerable to cancer. We should avoid the risk that this person will get sick after we hire them," and reject the application.

    You may laugh at all this as the fanciful creation of a science fiction scriptwriter. But no, medical technology is advancing and being adopted far faster than most of us think. Already, there are apparently parents who have their children genetically tested, look at the results and say things like, "Oh look, our child is genetically predisposed to building muscle and overall physical strength. We should put them in a gymnastics class."

    Of course there is nothing wrong with getting accurate information about your own physical condition or that of your family members. This could lead to better health management. However, if we step wrong just once, we may end up in a world of genetic discrimination for employment and marriage, possibly restricting our children's future freedom of choice.

    Looking at this issue as a psychiatrist, I have to say that a person's abilities and character are not solely decided by their genes. It's best to strive to do the things you want to do and not worry about your genetic tendencies. That, I think, is best for keeping healthy in both mind and body. (By Rika Kayama, psychiatrist)

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