Link Found Between Quality of Neighborhood and Cellular Aging

Issue Date: 
July 27, 2015

Pitt-led research recently discovered that, regardless of chronological age, study subjects who lived in neighborhoods with high crime, noise, and vandalism were biologically older than those who did not live in such neighborhoods. The findings were recently published online in PLOS One.

Previous research by others has shown that living in disadvantaged neighborhoods has an unfavorable impact on mental and physical health, explained the study’s lead author Mijung Park, assistant professor, University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing.

“Our team examined whether these environments also have a direct impact on cellular health,” she said. “We found that, indeed, biological aging processes could be influenced by socioeconomic conditions.”

The research team focused on telomeres, which are caps of DNA at the ends of chromosomes—similar to plastic caps on shoelaces—that protect the DNA strands from damage. Telomeres get trimmed each time the cell divides because they are not fully copied by enzyme mechanisms. It is thought that aging occurs when the telomeres become too short for DNA replication and cell division to proceed normally. Telomere shortening can be accelerated with exposure to biological or psychological stresses such as cancer, anxiety, and depression, Park said.

Working with researchers from Amsterdam, the team examined telomere length in white blood cells of 2,902 Dutch individuals participating in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. Researchers also determined the quality of participants’ neighborhoods by 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.”

Also participating in the study team from Pitt was Charles F. Reynolds III, director of the UPMC Aging Institute and UPMC Endowed Professor of Geriatric Psychiatry.