Geography And Genes Shape Health In The Long Term

June 02, 2023; Unhurry Expert Research Team.

The neighbourhood a child grows up in may influence their health for years to come in previously invisible ways.

In an 18-year study of 2,000 children born in England and Wales, it was discovered that the proteins and chemical compounds that control the activity of a person’s genes, or epigenome, differ in young adults raised in areas with higher levels of economic hardship, physical deterioration, social isolation, and danger.

The findings suggest that gene regulation may be one biological pathway through which neighbourhood disadvantage ‘gets under the skin’ to engender long-term health disparities.

The researchers say the study lends support to the hypothesis that gene regulation may be one biological pathway through which neighbourhood disadvantage “gets under the skin” to engender long-term health disparities.

Epigenetic differences

These individuals may be at increased risk for poorer health later in life due to changes in genes that have been previously associated with lung cancer, chronic inflammation, exposure to tobacco smoke, and outdoor air pollution. Even after accounting for the socioeconomic circumstances of the children’s households, epigenetic variations persisted and were observed in young adults who did not smoke or show signs of excessive inflammation.

“These findings may help explain how long-term health disparities among communities emerge,” said Aaron Reuben, a Ph.D. candidate at Duke who was the study’s lead author. “They also tell us that children who look the same physically and are otherwise healthy may enter adulthood wired at the cellular level for different outcomes in the future.”

It’s not possible to know yet whether these differences are lasting or could be modified, Reuben said. “That is something we will need to continue to evaluate.”

Geography and genes work together to shape our health

The study, appearing this month in the journal JAMA Network Open, drew from diverse data sources to characterize the physical, social, economic, and health and safety characteristics of children’s neighbourhoods across their childhood and adolescence.

Data were acquired from criminal court and local government databases, as well as thorough polls of area inhabitants and rigorous street-level observations (through Google Street View). This high-resolution, multi-decade neighbourhood data was merged with epigenetic data acquired from blood samples taken from people when they were 18 years old.

“The research is an important reminder that geography and genes work together to shape our health,” said Avshalom Caspi, the Edward M. Arnett Professor of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke, and a senior author on the study.

Neighbourhood-induced gene regulation differences impact health outcomes

In a journal commentary that accompanied the study, a psychiatric epidemiologist at Harvard Medical School Erin Dunn noted that neighbourhood-induced gene regulation differences “are likely implicated in many adverse health outcomes, spanning from mental health disorders to cancer, obesity, and metabolic diseases.” She writes, “I hope that studies like this by Reuben and colleagues will prompt researchers to explore these complex concepts and to bridge social determinants of health with epigenetic processes.”

The research was supported by the UK Medical Research Council (UKMRC), the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Google, the American Asthma Foundation, the Jacobs Foundation, a joint Natural Environment Research Council, UKMRC and Chief Scientist Office grant (NE/P010687/1). Data support was provided by Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute and the North Carolina Biotechnology Centre.

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Story Source:

Materials provided by Duke University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal References:

Aaron Reuben, Karen Sugden, Louise Arseneault, David L. Corcoran, Andrea Danese, Helen L. Fisher, Terrie E. Moffitt, Joanne B. Newbury, Candice Odgers, Joey Prinz, Line J. H. Rasmussen, Ben Williams, Jonathan Mill, Avshalom Caspi. Association of Neighborhood Disadvantage in Childhood With DNA Methylation in Young Adulthood. JAMA Network Open, 2020; 3 (6): e206095 DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.6095

Erin C. Dunn. The Role of Neighborhood Social Characteristics on the Epigenome—Why the Lack of Investigations? JAMA Network Open, 2020; 3 (6): e206111 DOI: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2020.6111

Page citation:

Duke University. “Adolescents from disadvantaged neighborhoods show gene regulation differences: Tougher childhood marks genes related to chronic inflammation, tobacco smoke, air pollution and lung cancer.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 19 June 2020. <>.

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