Bad Neighborhoods May Be Bad for Your DNA


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It has long been known that people who live in unsafe neighborhoods suffer poorer health and increased risk for death. Now researchers have found that living in these areas is associated with shorter telomere length, a marker of aging cells.

Telomeres, which lie at the ends of chromosomes, are structures involved in the replication of DNA molecules. Each time a cell divides, telomeres becomes shorter, a process associated with aging, illness and death.

Researchers studied 2,981 Dutch people aged 18 to 65, measuring telomere lengths in their white blood cells. They assessed neighborhood quality by asking residents about high noise levels, vandalism in the neighborhood, and feeling unsafe walking alone. The study is in PLOS One.

After controlling for a range of socioeconomic, health and lifestyle characteristics, they found that the greater the residents’ degree of unfavorable perceptions about their neighborhoods, the shorter the average telomere length in their cells.

The lead author, Mijung Park, an assistant professor of nursing at the University of Pittsburgh, said that the results should be interpreted cautiously — it is an observational study, and does not prove cause and effect.

Still, she said, “When we look at two people of the same age and gender and other characteristics, we find that those who live in bad neighborhoods are biologically older than those who do not by about 12 years.”



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