Blood samples give clues to social inequality

April 24, 2017 by Joe Dodgshun, From Horizon, Horizon: The EU Research & Innovation Magazine
Low socio-economic status takes 2.1 years off life. Credit: ‘Camden town 2’ by Misterzee is licensed under CC BY 3.0

More than a decade's worth of blood samples in Portugal and Ireland are being analysed to look for clues about the health impacts of socio-economic inequalities on children.

The aim is to convince policymakers to take action on poverty and target people while they are young enough that it can improve their health in later life.

"What counts in adult disease are early experiences in life—your socio-economic status in childhood—and this is already a indication that shows that we should intervene early," said Professor Paolo Vineis from Imperial College London, UK.

"However, the policies to reduce poverty are often targeted at elderly people."

He coordinates the EU-funded LIFEPATH project, which is looking at the biological processes in the body to investigate how people with different income, education and occupation levels – known as socio-economic status – age differently.

"What's new is that we try to connect socio-economic status, intermediate factors like smoking, and outcomes like healthy ageing, different diseases and also mortality," explained Prof. Vineis.

"But the most original part of the project is that we also use biomarkers—systematic measurements of sets of markers such as proteins, DNA, and RNA changes—and looking into these, we try to identify biological pathways that link behavioural exposures and socio-economic status with health outcomes."

Earlier this year the project published results showing that being poor can decrease life expectancy almost as much as physical inactivity—an average loss of life of 2.1 years. The team looked into data from nine countries across three continents and found that low socio-economic status can take an average of 2.6 years of life off for men and 1.5 for women.

Tell-tale molecules

Now, the LIFEPATH researchers hope that the from Portugal and Ireland will reveal the effects of poverty in children. They are also using biomarkers in the blood to compare people's biological age to their chronological age, which can be used as another measure of health .

"This (data) gives us information about dating back to infancy, linked with cognitive development, asthma and other diseases; while we also have blood samples and outcomes in adults like causes of death, cancer, cardiovascular diseases and indicators of quality of ageing," said Prof. Vineis.

Already, LIFEPATH has seen a link between being poor and poor health in both countries—and their next step is to see if the global economic recession has had any impact on these .

Socio-economic inequality is not yet targeted as a risk factor in the health strategies of intergovernmental bodies like the World Health Organization, and Prof. Vineis says national governments are also lagging on action. "In spite of formal declarations and speeches, not much is being done," he said.

While LIFEPATH aims to help change this by pushing for interventions on poverty's most significant impacts, another EU-funded project named PINQ is looking to better understand some of the factors blocking such policies.

Deepening inequality

In 2015, the World Economic Forum named deepening inequality as the world's most pressing issue, an act of recognition that PINQ researcher Dr Nikhil Sengupta, from the University of Oxford, UK, says is mirrored in public opinion.

"In large-scale surveys, you see that people state a preference for living in more equal societies, but we have a curious problem with that. Despite this consensus, many measures designed to tackle inequality still remain quite contentious, politically unpopular and don't gain the traction needed to be implemented."

He believes this intention-reality mismatch in policy approval may be explained by a phenomenon also seen in attitudes to racial policy—the so-called principle implementation gap—and its causes.

"More and more over the past decades, people have developed a shared consensus that racial equality is better than racial inequality, but there still remains a huge amount of resistance to actual policies that might reduce systemic racism. For example, quota systems which might help minorities enter into professions in which they are traditionally underrepresented."

PINQ will draw on the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study—one of the richest datasets on policies and attitudes in the world, following 20 000 people over eight years—and seek similar data in the UK, as part of a group planning to survey 3 000 Brits across minority and majority groups.

Dr Sengupta hopes to uncover new evidence about why opposition to policies designed to reduce inequality arises, potentially leading to better ways of communicating these to the public.

"Where does this come from and what are the psychological mechanisms that explain this resistance that people have? I think if we understand more about the individual psychology of it, we can understand more about why communication around these issues can be so difficult."

Explore further: Low socio-economic status, fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor adult health

More information: Silvia Stringhini et al, Socioeconomic status and the 25 × 25 risk factors as determinants of premature mortality: a multicohort study and meta-analysis of 1·7 million men and women, The Lancet (2017). DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(16)32380-7

Related Stories

Low socio-economic status, fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor adult health

October 13, 2016
Low socio-economic status and fear of abandonment early in life can lead to poor health in adulthood, regardless of adult socio-economic status, according to a new study from psychologists at Rice University.

Low socioeconomic status reduces life expectancy and should be counted as a major risk factor in health policy

February 1, 2017
Low socioeconomic status is linked to significant reductions in life expectancy and should be considered a major risk factor for ill health and early death in national and global health policies, according to a study of 1.7 ...

Research shows link between young people's mental health and future inequality

January 26, 2016
Mental health issues in early adulthood can impact upon a person's future life chances, a new study has shown.

Socio-economic status may impact care of children with epilepsy

January 19, 2016
Socio-economic status may influence the use of health resources among children with epilepsy, even in a universal health insurance system.

Child mortality and malnutrition linked to gender inequality

March 21, 2016
Women's status in society is strongly linked with children's health and survival according to a new study from UCL and the University of Cambridge.

As neighborhood status falls, cardiovascular disease risk among black residents spikes

January 4, 2017
The lower a neighborhood's socioeconomic status is, the more likely its black residents are to develop heart disease and stroke, according to a new Drexel University-led public health study.

Recommended for you

First ever meta-analysis on Indian lead exposure reveals link to devastating intellectual disability in children

October 12, 2018
New Macquarie University research has revealed the devastating disease burden associated with elevated blood lead levels in India. The results of the first ever meta-analysis of Indian blood lead levels found the burden of ...

The long-term effects of maternal high-fat diets

October 12, 2018
If a mother eats a high-fat diet, this can have a negative effect on the health of her offspring—right down to her great-grandchildren. This is the conclusion drawn by researchers at ETH Zurich from a study with mice.

Sit-stand office desks cut daily sitting time and appear to boost job performance

October 11, 2018
Sit-stand workstations that allow employees to stand, as well as sit, while working on a computer reduce daily sitting time and appear to have a positive impact on job performance and psychological health, finds a trial published ...

Molecular link between body weight, early puberty identified

October 11, 2018
Becoming overweight at a young age can trigger a molecular chain reaction that leads some girls to experience puberty early, according to new research published in Nature Communications.

Hearing and visual aids linked to slower age-related memory loss

October 11, 2018
Hearing aids and cataract surgery are strongly linked to a slower rate of age-related cognitive decline, according to new research by University of Manchester academics.

Hundreds of patients with undiagnosed diseases find answers, study reports

October 10, 2018
More than 100 patients afflicted by mysterious illnesses have been diagnosed through a network of detective-doctors who investigate unidentified diseases, reports a study conducted by scientists at the Stanford University ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.