Neighborhood Characteristics May Affect Epigenetic Predictors of Mortality Risk

Old apartment building with rusted metal pipes.

Research has shown that people who live in poorer neighborhoods may have shorter lifespans. Urban areas of low socioeconomic status, for example, have more pollution and stressful environments, which are associated with an increased risk of death and therefore a shorter lifespan. But few studies explain the biological process that leads to this increased risk. A study funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and NIMHD found a potential new way to assess how neighborhood-level exposures affect health and mortality risk.

The researchers analyzed data from an urban population of 157 people, the majority of whom were African American, in the Detroit Neighborhood Health Study. The participants completed telephone surveys and provided blood samples when they enrolled in the study. Survey questions asked about participants’ alcohol and tobacco usage, social support, health, and perceptions of their neighborhoods. In addition, trained assessors evaluated the Detroit neighborhoods based on 19 characteristics, such as building and street conditions and green space. This information was used to identify any relationships between the neighborhood characteristics and epigenetic changes (reversible chemical changes to DNA that affect gene expression) known to be related to the risk of death from all causes. Epigenetic changes were identified by examining the participants’ blood samples. The researchers did a secondary analysis that took into account participants’ personal views of how close-knit their neighborhoods are and how much they like their neighborhoods.

Of the neighborhood characteristics explored, the presence of abandoned cars and people outside on streets, poor road conditions, and nonart graffiti were strongly associated with mortality risk, based on the epigenetic changes. The presence of green space, including large green trees, was associated with a lower risk of death. These associations were more apparent in female participants. How individuals viewed their neighborhoods did not affect epigenetic predictors of mortality risk.

This study provides insight into how neighborhood disadvantages might translate into health disparities between wealthy and poorer communities. The results also suggest that potential protective factors, such as green space, can create a healthier environment and reduce the biological effect of harmful exposures. Further research is needed to understand the biological processes of how neighborhood-level exposures can affect health and whether a person’s sex affects these changes. Ultimately, these findings can inform communities about which neighborhood factors to consider for reducing health disparities at the neighborhood level.

Ward-Caviness, C. K., Pu, S., Martin, C. L., Galea, S., Uddin, M., Wildman, D. E., … Aiello, A. E. (2020). Epigenetic predictors of all-cause mortality are associated with objective measures of neighborhood disadvantage in an urban populationClinical Epigenetics12(1), 44. doi:10.1186/s13148-020-00830-8

Page updated February 3, 2021