New research suggests that regardless of a person’s age, living in a neighborhood with high crime, noise, and vandalism can make the individual biologically more than a decade older than those who do not.
Although it has been observed that living in disadvantaged neighborhoods has an unfavorable impact on mental and physical health, the new University of Pittsburgh study found biological evidence to support the observations.
Study leader, Mijung Park, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.N., explains that the research team examined whether the challenging environments also have a direct impact on cellular health. ‘We found that indeed, biological aging processes could be influenced by socioeconomic conditions.’
Researchers focused on telomeres, which are stretches of DNA at the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are often compared to caps on shoelaces because they protect the DNA strands from damage.
Telomeres get trimmed each time the cell divides because they are not fully copied by enzyme mechanisms, and it is thought that aging occurs when the telomeres become too short for DNA replication and cell division to proceed normally.
Investigators worked with researchers from Amsterdam to examine telomere length in white blood cells of 2,902 Dutch individuals participating in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety.
Researchers determined the quality of the neighborhoods in which the study participants resided using measures of perceived neighborhood disorder, fear of crime and noise. They found that the telomeres of people reporting poor neighborhood quality were significantly shorter than telomeres of those who did not.
“The differences in telomere length between the two groups were comparable to 12 years in chronological age,” Park said. “It’s possible that their cells are chronically activated in response to psychological and physiological stresses created by disadvantaged socioeconomic, political, and emotional circumstances.”
The findings appear online in PLOS One.