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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Northwestern: Study Indicates Poverty Leaves a Mark on our Genes

A new Northwestern University study challenges prevailing understandings of genes as immutable features of biology that are fixed at conception.

Previous research has shown that socioeconomic status (SES) is a powerful determinant of human health and disease, and social inequality is a ubiquitous stressor for human populations globally. Lower educational attainment and/or income predict increased risk for heart disease, diabetes, many cancers and infectious diseases, for example. Furthermore, lower SES is associated with physiological processes that contribute to the development of disease, including chronic inflammation, insulin resistance and cortisol dysregulation.

In this study, researchers found evidence that poverty can become embedded across wide swaths of the genome. They discovered that lower socioeconomic status is associated with levels of DNA methylation (DNAm) — a key epigenetic mark that has the potential to shape gene expression — at more than 2,500 sites, across more than 1,500 genes.

In other words, poverty leaves a mark on nearly 10 percent of the genes in the genome.

Dr. Thomas McDade, a professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern and member of the Northwestern Institute for Public Health and Medicine (IPHAM), was the lead author on this study. The study was published recently in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

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