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Epigenetics of Poverty: Why Children from Deprived Backgrounds are Hardwired for Poorer Health

For those of us passionate about social justice and equality, it stands to reason that children growing up in disadvantaged backgrounds may struggle to reach the opportunities and privilege others take for granted. We also know that people from deprived areas tend to have worse health outcomes throughout life than people from better off communities [1]. Poverty has always had clear links to health, but now a biological explanation for part of this may be coming to light.

Long-term research carried out by Duke University has revealed that growing up in a deprived environment can affect your epigenetics – the way your genes are expressed. The study, published this month in JAMA Network Open, followed nearly 2000 children born in England and Wales, from birth to age 18. Researchers found that those growing up in communities marked by socio-economic deprivation, social disconnection and danger showed differences in the chemical compounds and proteins which regulate gene activity. In particular, these differences were noted in genes connected to chronic inflammation, exposure to tobacco smoke, outdoor air pollution, and lung cancer. This altered epigenome puts these individuals at greater risk of poor health later in life. [2]

The differences were evident even after correcting for socio-economic status across the study, and even in young adults who do not smoke or have any evidence of underlying inflammatory disease.

The study authors believe that this may explain why some communities tend to show long term adverse health outcomes. If this health disparity stems from epigenetics, it would clearly show how childhood inequality and deprivation can ‘get under the skin’ as the study puts it [2], affecting life chances and health from childhood onwards.

The study gathered a wide range of long-term neighborhood data to enable it to draw conclusions about the physical, social, economic, and health and safety characteristics of the children’s neighborhoods. Data was gathered from government sources, detailed surveys, the criminal justice system and focused observation of neighborhoods across decades. This data was analyzed in conjunction with blood drawn from the participants once they reached the age of 18.

This new research did not determine whether or not the epigenetic changes noted in the young adults are reversible, so this is something it is hoped future research can discover.

If verified, these findings are key evidence that policy interventions at a local neighborhood level could improve adult health outcomes in the long term. It cannot be right that whole generations of certain neighborhoods stand at the cusp of adulthood already hard wired, at a cellular level, to achieve potentially poorer health outcomes than their peers.


(Read the original article here)



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