Can Being Poor Change Your Biology?

How living in poverty disadvantages entire populations at a genetic level

Imagine trying to live on half of your income. Now try a quarter. How about $12k/yr? Now raise two children, pay your rent, and maintain your own health through it all. If you’re like 13% of America, this is your reality; this is poverty. Living in poverty is a major setback on many different levels; everything from socioeconomic advantage to physical health is well understood to be impacted by its grasp. New research is now suggesting that various physical manifestations of poverty – high blood pressure, heart disease, and diabetes – may have a deeper biological explanation. Previous research has shown socioeconomic status (SES) to have a strong correlation with general health of a population; groups with low SES are at greater risk for disease. This new work now suggests a cause for the correlation that has been seen time and time again.

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Can Being Poor Change Your Biology
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Social scientists have been suggesting that SES is a highly accurate determinant of health for many years now. Research done as early as the 1980’s has shown significant correlation between low SES and high risk for many dangerous diseases. Social stigma frequently worked its way into scientists’ explanations of this correlation, with many suggesting that poor lifestyle choices of those affected by poverty were to blame for their plight. This unsavory trend continued for many years, with many prominent researchers in the field pushing the misinformed narrative even today. The main issue with correlational study is that it does not provide cause and thus lends itself to conjecture, which can prove harmful and counterproductive. New research providing a biological cause for these major health disadvantages in poverty stricken communities will hopefully quell inaccurate and harmful theories of the past.

A team of scientists based out of The United States and Canada have positively identified a large section of the genome that appears to be altered in individuals affected by poverty. The team was able to identify about 8% of the human genome that is modified by a natural process called epigenetics. The genes affected span a wide range of functions, but notable culprits include genes related to developmental processes related to obesity, heart health, nervous system function, and mental health. Evidence presented for these findings is preliminary, but could have dramatic implications for the explanation of poverty and its many disadvantages. Unlike previous explanations which focus on individual choice, an epigenetic explanation suggests something with a far deeper permanence.

Epigenetics is the study of how genes, the building blocks of life, change over the course of our lifetimes. Genes act as a molecular code for all of our traits and play an essential role in both our development and our everyday function as adults. This code is not static though; it is constantly being manipulated by our environment. While the genes themselves do not change, which genes are actively being used changes with great frequency. The genome is full of molecular tags, like bookmarks, telling the body where to look for specific information. When epigenetics makes a change to the genome, it will alter where that bookmark is placed, directing the body to use a different section and create a different result. Most importantly, these bookmark changes will be passed down from generation to generation. An epigenetic change made by the body of your grandmother could, and likely is, still with you today.

Poverty disadvantages the playing field of life, but this research suggests a far deeper meaning. It has previously been postulated that communities living in poverty have trouble gaining status because of their limited access to resources, healthcare, and clean environments. While these reasons are certainly all still valid, the idea that genetic changes could be at play as well deepens the divide. Even if individuals who have been through poverty are able to ascend social ranks, they will carry genetic markers of disadvantage with them for the rest of their lives. Even someone who has never been through poverty but whose family has suffered in the past, may be at risk for the same lack of genetic opportunity. We know that poverty limits opportunity, but now we understand that the opportunity lost may be under our very skin.

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