The Link Between Epigenetics and Social Factors

a toddler wearing striped shirt putting the spoon on his mouth with the cake in the front | Feature | The Link Between Epigenetics and Social Factors

The US, Republic of Ireland, and Northern Ireland will join forces on a new project that looks at how psychological, behavioral, environmental, and social factors in childhood impact gene expression, aging, and health later in life.

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In this article:

  1. Epigenetics and Social Factors Project 
  2. Longitudinal Studies From Each Country

Epigenetics and Social Factors Project

a woman have a headache | Epigenetics and Social Factors Project | The Link Between Epigenetics and Social Factors

Stressful events like violence, neglect, and hunger in childhood may cause epigenome changes that last for decades.

Researchers from the US, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland plan to collaborate on a groundbreaking project to study the link between social factors and epigenetics. The three-nation team will examine social, economic, health, and epigenetic data from their long-term national studies to determine how trauma, adversity, and other factors impact the genome.

According to Prof. Eileen Crimmins, holder of the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the University of Southern California, the project provides a novel opportunity to assess how a range of social factors affects the genome, such as:

  • Chronic stress
  • Risky health behaviors
  • Psychological states
  • Adult traumas
  • Adverse childhood events
  • Minority group membership
  • Low levels of education and income

More specifically, the project will consider how these factors affect epigenetic markers in three diverse countries, with distinct historical, social, and behavioral traits, as well as different health policy regimes.

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Longitudinal Studies From Each Country

a group of scientist looking at the computer screen | Longitudinal Studies From Each Country | The Link Between Epigenetics and Social Factors

Applicants cooperated to submit a single, joint tripartite proposal to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). Each country has a strong independent research team, but the studies were set up to share information from the start. As a result, each research team brings unique resources and expertise with accessible data.

Here’s a closer look at the national studies.

The US Health and Retirement Study (HRS)

The University of Michigan Health and Retirement Study is a long-term study following a sample (panel) of roughly 20,000 people in America. Over the last 30 years, researchers have collected data from a sequence of interviews.

Through its in-depth interviews, the HRS provides a priceless and expanding collection of multidisciplinary data. Scientists use this data to answer aging questions and address the challenges and opportunities that come with growing older.

The HRS received a $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging in support of the initiative. Furthermore, Prof. Crimmins is the chief analyst, and Associate Research Scientist Jesica Faul is the co-principal analyst on the project.

The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing (TILDA)

The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) is a large-scale, longitudinal study on aging by Trinity College Dublin. Overall, the aim is to develop an ideal country for aging well.

A nationally representative survey of older Irish citizens serves as the basis on which to plan social, health, medical, and economic policies. Researchers characterize the population to get an accurate picture of the needs of older persons. They also look at factors that contribute to successful aging, including:

  • Health status and needs
  • Social and economic state and needs
  • Economic, social, and health needs of families and carers of older people
  • Environmental and biological elements of successful aging
  • Key component (health, wealth, happiness) interaction

The study, led by Prof. Rose Anne Kenny, Head of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin, started with more than 8500 participants in 2009. Data collection includes health assessments, interviews, and self-complete questionnaires.

Northern IreLand Cohort Longitudinal Study of Ageing (NICOLA)

NICOLA is Northern Ireland’s long-term study of aging in the over-50’s population. It began in 2013 with 8,500 randomly selected participants.

While the study closely follows extensive methods like TILDA and HRS, it includes questions relevant to Northern Ireland’s unique situation. It also focuses on transition point in aging, the effects of diet on the aging process, and intergenerational poverty.

During the study, researchers interview participants every two years to obtain data on:

  • Health behaviors, lifestyle, and habits
  • Health and social care utilization
  • Cognitive, physical, and emotional health and well-being
  • Social connectedness and participation
  • Driving and travel
  • Housing
  • Education, finances, employment, and retirement

Additionally, they have a health assessment every four years for at least ten years.

Prof. Amy Jayne McKnight is leading the NICOLA component of the project.

Other Institutions

Besides the University of Michigan and Trinity College Dublin, others will also take part in the project, namely:

  • The University of South California
  • The University of California Los Angeles
  • The University of Minnesota
  • Yale University
  • Queen’s University Belfast

In short, this collaborative project may have valuable insights into the epigenome. For this reason, researchers expect to get a better understanding of how life course and social factors impact epigenetic change and health later in life. They also hope to find links between life events and health outcomes. The initiative may offer new ways to prevent and treat age-related illness and provide a lasting legacy for future collaborations and projects. Above all, it may improve our knowledge of the underlying mechanisms of healthy aging.

If you’re interested in learning more about epigenetics and aging, visit the TruDiagnostic website today.

What other countries would you like to participate in a research project of this magnitude? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!


Three-nation project to examine link between epigenetics and social factors

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