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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Columbia: Is It Genetic Code or Postal Code that Influence a Child’s Life Chances? Genetics Are a Small Piece of the Puzzle

Research at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health  provides insights into whether neighborhoods influence children’s health and life chances. This is the first study to bring together genetic and geographic data to test links between children’s neighborhood and genetic risk. Findings are in Nature Human Behaviour. 

The study led by Dr. Daniel Belsky, epidemiology at Columbia Mailman, and Candice Odgers at UC Irvine, linked data of thousands of children in Britain and Wales (E-Risk Twin Study). They found that children growing up in worse-off neighborhoods also carried higher genetic risk for poor educational outcomes and earlier childbearing. Replicating findings in the U.S. Add Health Study, they found gene-neighborhood correlations.

“But genetic risk alone was not enough,” said Dr. Belsky. “The data could explain only 10-15 percent of the link between neighborhood risk and poor educational qualifications, suggesting there is ample opportunity for neighborhoods to influence these outcomes.”

No link was found between neighborhood and genetic risk for obesity. Children in worse-off neighborhoods experienced more symptoms of mental disorder, but there was little evidence that the reason was due to genetic risk. For physical and mental health problems, postal code and genetic code predicted children’s futures.

Analyses were also based on genome-wide association studies of obesity, schizophrenia, age-at-first-birth, and education. Neighborhood features were captured with Google Street View.

Polygenic risk scores showed a link between genetics and neighborhoods for teen pregnancy and poor educational outcomes, but are still an imperfect tool,” said Dr. Belsky. “They can help us test if genes and neighborhoods are related, but they cannot tell us how.”