A new survey of 23andMe’s Health + Ancestry customers conducted by M/A/R/C® Research found that more than three-quarters reported that after receiving their personalized genetic reports they made at least one positive change in their health behavior.
Changes included eating healthier, getting more sleep, and exercising more, among others.
“We’re encouraged by these preliminary findings, and they’ve spurred us to embark on more comprehensive research into behavior change as a result of our service,” said Joyce Tung, 23andMe’s Vice President for Research. “We have heard from many customers who have offered stories about how their 23andMe results have positively impacted their lives, but we want more quantitative data.”
Taking Steps to Improve Health
Sleep, diet and exercise are key to good health, so understanding what might motivate people to make meaningful and positive changes is important. Two years ago, 23andMe researchers presented data at the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, showing that after viewing their 23andMe Saturated Fat and Weight report, customers reported making healthier dietary choices.
In this new survey, external researchers asked Health + Ancestry customers about the overall impact of their 23andMe experience, regardless of their results. Among those who responded to the survey 76 percent said they made one or more healthy changes to their lifestyles. Of those who responded to the survey:
- 55 percent reported healthier eating habits including eating more vegetables, and cutting out sugar and fast food.
- 45 percent said they were exercising more.
- 42 percent said they were getting more sleep.
The survey, designed by 23andMe and M/A/R/C Research, and conducted online by M/A/R/C over two weeks in August 2019, included responses from 1,046 23andMe Health + Ancestry customers who have joined within the past two years.
While the responses are not representative of the US general population as a whole, they do offer preliminary insights worth studying further to gauge the impact of 23andMe results as a motivator for healthy behavior change.
Impact of Genetic Testing
There have been several other studies that have looked at the impact of genetic testing. Among the most notable has been the on-going work of the Impact of Personal Genomics Study (PGen), a collaborative effort led by scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT, Harvard Medical School, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The group’s 2017 study, “Diet and exercise changes following direct-to-consumer personal genomic testing,” looked at both 23andMe and Pathway Genomics customers and found “30 percent of participants reported making a change to their diet that was specifically motivated by their (personal genetic testing) results, and 26 percent reported changing their exercise based on their (personal genetic testing) results.”
Other studies have shown much more mixed results, including a study from 2011 by researchers at the Scripps Translational Science Institute & Scripps Health, which found minimal impact either way changing behavior.
An interesting difference between those previous studies is that they drew from customers who received an older version of 23andMe’s reports. This new survey is of customers who had access to FDA-authorized health reports. Part of the FDA’s evaluation of those reports focused on user comprehension. 23andMe was able to show that more than 90 percent of those who read the reports were able to understand the key concepts in the reports. This survey however doesn’t offer any insight into whether the difference between the old and new reports has an impact on customers’ behavior.
There are many questions raised by the survey that 23andMe researchers would like to explore further. The paramount question they would like to address is whether this survey is capturing the sentiment of a more engaged health customer, or whether the nature of 23andMe personalized genetic reports motivates positive change. But the survey results offer an intriguing first step in learning more about improving health behavior for 23andMe customers.
23andMe researchers hope to conduct follow-up studies to more rigorously measure factors related to behavior change, better establish attribution, and increase generalizability to the broader customer base. Eventually researchers hope to submit their findings for peer review and publication.