Dr. Rachel C. Shelton, assistant professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia Mailman School of Public Health (MSPH), and Dr. Shakira F. Suglia, associate professor of epidemiology at Emory University and adjunct faculty at the Mailman School of Public Health, received a $2.56 million five-year RO1 grant from NIH’s National Institute on Aging to study Stress, Epigenetics, and Aging. Analyzing data from the Disparities (DISPAR) study, Ds. Shelton and Suglia, along with an interdisciplinary team of scientists, will analyze the relationship between social stressors and resources across the life course (birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood) in relation to biological aging processes. The DISPAR study conducted a 50-year follow-up of participants from a cohort of pregnant mothers between 1959 and 1967 in Alameda County, California (CHDS or Child Health and Development Studies). Drs. Shelton and Suglia will assay existing stored blood collected at age 50 for biomarkers of biological aging — telomere length and methylation age. The researchers will have a unique opportunity to examine the independent and cumulative impact of both socioeconomic position and social stress (e.g. child adversity, racial discrimination, caregiving stress) at multiple points across the life course in relation to DNA methylation and telomere length among a diverse sample of whites and African Americans. In addition, Drs. Shelton and Suglia will examine whether behavioral factors (e.g. sleep, substance use) and mental health factors help explain these associations, and whether forms of resilience, coping, and support help modify the impact of these stressors.
A social and behavioral scientist with expertise in implementation science, Dr. Shelton’s research focuses on understanding how social and contextual factors contribute to racial/ethnic and socioeconomic-based health disparities among African Americans, and the role of social networks in promoting the health of medically underserved populations and engagement in preventive health behaviors. Dr. Suglia’s research examines how social factors experienced across the life course impact health outcomes; she focuses in particular on the role of early life stressors in shaping mental, behavioral and cardiometabolic health.
“It is important to investigate the role of stress among African Americans who have higher mortality, shorter lifespan, and experience a disproportionate burden of disease than whites,” said Dr. Shelton. “Given that half of our sample is African-American, we will have the opportunity to assess how stress, resources, and associated biological aging processes differ by race, and whether certain stressors at key points across the life course contribute to different patterns in accelerated aging.”
In addition to researchers from the Mailman School at Columbia, the research team includes investigators from Emory University, University of California-Riverside, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Public Health Institute.