Peter Hentges (jbru) wrote,
Peter Hentges

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How much to know?

So I'm watching an episode of Nova on PBS called "Cracking the Code of Life." It's all about the human genome project and what information means to us.

One of the outcomes is the "GATTACA" scenario in which many, if not all of our ills may become available as common knowledge. There exists now, for example, a test for two mutated genes that show a significant correlation to breast and ovarian cancer. (The researcher on the program stated that the overall chance of a woman getting breast cancer in her life is 10% across the whole populationl. Of the women with mutations in these genes, the chance is 80% across a woman's life.)

So this begs the question. As tests like this become available, perhaps even routine, how much would you want to know and when would you want to know it?

My first reaction is that I'd want to know about flaws in my genetics that would lead to catastrophic health conditions for any children I might father. That is, if I was carrying a gene that would contribute to Cystic Fibrosis or Multiple Sclerosis, I'd want to know before having kids. Knowing, I likely wouldn't choose a natural conception with someone that had compatible tendencies that would increase the risk of our child having one of these illnesses.

My second reaction is that I'd like to know if I was at higher risk for diseases like cancer for which I could make lifestyle choices that improve my odds. If doing or not doing something changes my probabilities, that gives me choices and, informed, i can make those choices wisely.

What I don't want to know is things for which I can do nothing. This currently seems unlikely as the research is young enough that people are looking at finding genes that match up with things for which they want to improve treatment. I can't think of a good example. Alzheimer's is close, but they're finding ways to treat or delay the onset of that now. But something like that. Some condition that will come on gradually when I'm 80 or so and leave me a fundamentally changed person no matter what I do. Don't tell me. Hopefully I won't notice, or, having noticed, won't care so much by then.

I don't want, at first blush, to have this thing hanging over my head. 50 years from now, I might get something that will be devastating. No diet, drug or lifestyle choice will make a difference. What good is that information?

On the other hand, I might make different choices, like a person told they had six days to live. Only I'd have 50 years to make those choices. To live life as if each day was my last.

Which, of course, raises the question of "Why not do that now?" Something will bring all of this to an end one day. Why postpone joy?

Largely, that's my philosophy anyway. We all make compromises, but I try to make them in ways that lead me to more joy in my life. One tries to make it easy for the universe to do its job, which is, to my thinking, to make us happy.

I look forward to your comments.

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