Nutrigenetic Testing in the WorkplaceBy Gustavo Rodríguez | Tue, 02/01/2022 - 11:19
Science continues to contribute to the progress of medicine, a clear example of which is that the world’s life expectancy has been increasing as knowledge advances. We no longer see the death of a man or woman as normal at age 35. Neurodegenerative, metabolic diseases and different types of cancer tend to develop instead. As a result, we no longer only need a medicine for treating the diseases that are prevalent at the moment; we also need a method of detecting diseases to which we are susceptible and a way to prevent them.
This is why employers are beginning to see the potential of genetic tests, since they offer the possibility of improving the health of workers, from physical to mental health. This is due to nutrigenetic tests that allow us to change and improve our nutrition and lifestyle habits in such a way that it brings us closer to achieving immediate and future well-being. Investing to prevent the development of serious illnesses also represents lower spending on medical services and expenses related to disability, coupled with the fact that well-being is not limited to the individual but also to the work environment, making it possible to attract and retain the interest of people with outstanding skills and interest in the company, which could reduce the time and money spent on training new staff by increasing employee retention rates.
Opportunity Cost: Health as a Strength
Various studies have linked the factors related to diseases among workers that result in work absenteeism. In particular, a study carried out in Bogotá, Colombia, included information from 214 employees to determine the prevalence of risk factors related to cardiovascular diseases. The study’s results showed that the prevalence of absenteeism from work broke down as follows (where one respondent could select multiple afflictions): 13 percent was due to smoking, 35 percent to alcohol consumption, 40 percent to a sedentary lifestyle, 54 percent were workers who had high total cholesterol and 44 percent were overweight or obese.
The reason for the interest of the study in cardiovascular diseases is due to the fact that these are chronic diseases that, according to the World Health Organization, are considered the main cause of death in the world and that factors associated with deaths of cardiovascular origin were those previously mentioned in high prevalence. It is also worth adding diabetes mellitus to these risk factors. This research clearly shows the consequences of suffering from a chronic disease: for the worker, it implies low income, greater work absenteeism, less time performing work activities and greater job instability compared to those employees who do not have a chronic disease. On the employers’ side, they entail higher medical care costs, to which are added indirect costs due to the reduction in the company’s productivity.
There’s a need to highlight the importance of taking preventive measures that can help reduce the presence of cardiovascular risk factors in workers, as well to help reduce the impact of morbidity and mortality from chronic diseases. The improvement of health in the working population will also be achieved and it is emphasized that wellness programs within a company reduce expenses related to medical services and labor absenteeism.
Although the findings of this study and others like it present an interesting analysis of work absenteeism due to chronic diseases, they do not delve into the great impact of a very important risk factor: genetics. Cardiovascular diseases are chronic diseases that are classified into categories that include high blood pressure, cardiomyopathies, cerebrovascular disease, coronary heart disease and congenital heart disease. These disorders affect the heart and blood vessels and tend to be passed from generation to generation, so it is common for members of a family with a history of cardiovascular disease to develop these same conditions. However, genetics, that is, mutations in specific genes, do not represent a determining factor, which makes prevention possible.
Nutrigenetic Profile for Healthcare Personalization, Chronic Disease Prevention
Knowing our nutrigenetic profile allows us to identify the variations contained in our genetic material, which affect our ability to metabolize the nutrients obtained in our diet or supplements and the diseases that they could influence. The above makes possible the development of strategies for the treatment and prevention of certain diseases; that is to say that thanks to nutrigenetics we are now able to base ourselves on the genetic predispositions that each individual possesses to develop a personalized nutrition plan that positively influences our health.
In a nutrigenetic test, what is analyzed are the genetic variations responsible for biodiversity, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), which are responsible for the variations in gene expression between individuals and determine the type of interaction between diet and disease that an individual can present and that, due to environmental factors, such as eating habits, can cause an even more unfavorable response to health.
Potential of Genetic Testing to Improve Occupational Health
Some examples of large companies that have recognized the potential of genetic testing as a useful tool for creating preventive health strategies are Visa, SAP, Tribune Media and GE Appliances. Having the opportunity to access a genetic test contributes to the timely prevention of diseases that we are at risk of incurring, due to the susceptibility of the composition of our genetic code. It is important that we facilitate not only the improvement of health but also access to genetic services on a confidential basis. A correct handling of private information and advice allows employees a positive change in their habits. Investing in preventive health in the future will mean a reduction in medical costs and an improvement in company productivity (Somani, 2017).
Somani (2017) mentions the particular case of a woman who, when undergoing a genetic test, found a mutation in the type 1 breast cancer gene (BRCA1), whose function is to be a tumor suppressor, so a mutation affects its correct function and increases the risk of breast cancer by 80 percent. People with this gene are recommended for regular monitoring to detect tumors in their early stages. During this woman’s pregnancy, she noticed a lump near one of her breasts and, although several doctors assured that it was not cancer, as it is common for lumps to appear during pregnancy, because she was known to be a carrier of a mutation in the BRCA1 gene they proceeded to perform an ultrasound and a biopsy that confirmed that she was suffering from the early stages of cancer.
Based on the aforementioned, the benefits of using nutrigenetic tests in health and wellness programs are prevention and risk management, savings in medical expenses by preventing health problems beforehand or detecting them in the early stages, reduction of work absenteeism and improved performance in work activities. In addition, according to the results of a survey mentioned by Fordham (2016), 29 percent of the people surveyed answered that if they were aware that they had an inherited genetic variant related to the development of a disease, they would be willing to make changes in their lifestyle and 28 percent would be more careful with the medical monitoring of their health.
The insurance company Aetna implemented health wellness programs that offered advice, a personalized food plan and a training regimen to help employees lose weight. A total of 445 employees entered the program, which was part of a three-year study in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. A year later, only half of the participants remained in the program. In the end, more than three quarters of the remaining participants lost an average of more than 5kg and the most successful participant lost more than 22kd and dropped eight sizes in a period of two and a half years (Greenfield, 2016). The remaining participants noted that there was an awakening in their interest in being proactive and improving their health status.
Aetna carried out another study in which a health wellness program was implemented, this time focused on reducing the risk of suffering from metabolic diseases through a personalized wellness program. More than 1,500 individuals participated, divided into three groups: the first received a nutrigenetic test and was invited to join the wellness program, the second group received their genetic test results, were invited to join the wellness program and were given a 12-month prognosis of their health. Finally, the third group only received their genetic test results without being invited to the wellness program. One year later, at the end of the study, the results revealed an improvement in glucose, cholesterol, triglyceride and blood pressure levels in the three groups, with groups 1 and 2 showing the best results. In addition, the medical expenses of each group were evaluated and, although there was a decrease in the three groups, once again it was groups 1 and 2 in which there was a more noticeable change (Steinberg et al., 2015).
Invitation to Employers and Risk Managers
The use of genetic tests allows us, through a preventive approach to medicine, to reduce suffering from serious illnesses that imply losses for companies due to medical expenses, work absenteeism and rotation of personnel. On the other hand, an investment in nutrigenetic tests and advice that guides workers to get to know their unique necessities and improve their nutrition, sleeping and physical activity habits represents, in comparison, a lower expense and, in addition, offers well-being to the individuals who make up the company. Companies can also generate the awakening of people's interest in the care and monitoring of their health.
Healthcare company nutriADN, based in Mexico, has developed a nutrigenetic test and wellness program for companies. Called Corporate Wellness Program, it encompasses a complete vision of preventive healthcare in the workplace. It considers a platform that includes the individual nutrigenetic profile, nutrition and exercise recommendations based on results, blood tests, follow-up consultations with health professionals and a monthly analysis of improvements in activity, engagement, health and other factors that help create a corporate wellness culture.
Bah, M. C., & Meade Huerta, P. (2014). Genetic Bases of Obesity: Nutrigenetics, Epigenetics, Metagenome and Obesity. Zaragoza's University.
Cano Jiménez, B., Corbalán Elías, M. B., & Muñoz Sánchez, R. (2018). Nutrigenetics and Nutrigenomics. Integrated Vocational Training Center of Lorca.
Fordham, L. (2016). Does genetic testing have a place in a healthcare and wellbeing strategy? Retrieved from: https://employeebenefits.co.uk/issues/february-2016/does-genetic-testing-have-a-place-in-a-healthcare-and-wellbeing-strategy/
Greenfield, R. (2016). How testing workers' genes could make office wellness programs work. Retrieved from: https://www.benefitspro.com/2016/02/09/how-testing-workers-genes-could-make-wellness-plan/?slreturn=20220018154541
Hernández-Martínez, J. C., Varona-Uribe, M., & Hernández, G. (2020). Prevalence of factors associated with cardiovascular disease and its relationship with absenteeism in workers of an official entity. Colombian Journal of Cardiology, 27(2), 109-116.
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Somani, P. (2017). Top 3 Reasons Employers are Offering Genetic Testing as an Employee Health Benefit. Retrieved from: https://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/article/top-3-reasons-employers-offering-genetic-testing-employee-health-benefit#:~:text=Offering%20employees%20confidential%20access%20to, the%20future%20of%20their%20business.
Steinberg, G., Scott, A., Honcz, J., Spettell, C., & Pradham, S. (2015). Metabolic Syndrome Risk Using a Personalized Wellness Program. JOEM, 57(12).