The stresses of a low income can leave damaging and lasting imprints on the genes of the urban poor, according to a new study.

The study suggests that poor people’s DNA is declining in quality as a result of a difficult upbringing. The findings were based on the DNA testing of the length of telomeres, which are DNA sequences that shrink with age.

DNA Testing the Poor

Those who lived in disadvantaged environments tended to have shorter telomeres than those who lived in a more advantaged environment, with previous research indicating telomere length can reliably predict life expectancy in humans.

Telomeres are the protective caps on the ends of the strands of DNA called chromosomes, which house our genomes. In young humans, telomeres are about 8,000-10,000 nucleotides long. They shorten with each cell division and as a result of stress.

The study found that low-income residents of Detroit have shorter telomeres than the national average. Lead author of the study, Dr. Arline Geronimus, suggested that evidence increasingly points to observing telomere length through DNA testing being a strong indicator of healthy life expectancy and that “the shorter your telomeres [are], the greater your chance of dying.”

Dr Geronimus added: “There are effects of living in high-poverty, racially segregated neighbourhoods – the life experiences people have, the physical exposures, a whole range of things -that are just not good for your health.”

DNA Testing Reveals Stress Damages DNA

The research follows a similar study by Princeton University and Pennsylvania State University which found stressful environments can impact the DNA of children as young as nine. That too revealed that those who grow up in disadvantaged environments have shorter telomeres.

The researchers also reported that those with genetic sensitivities to their environment have shorter telomeres after experiencing stressful social environments than the telomeres of those without genetic sensitivities.

Such sensitivities are based on gene variants involved with the serotonin and dopamine pathways, which are neurotransmitters essential for relaying information between the brain and the body.

Dr Geronimus explained how shocking these finding were saying: “I think it’s very striking that these findings are in children at age nine, because you are talking about accelerated aging or stress-mediated wear and tear on your body, which make you more vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases. To say that you can see this by nine years old is a very strong statement.”

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