Poverty Can Change Our Genes, Study Says

Colman Andrews

Researchers have discovered that poverty can affect our genetic makeup.

According to a Northwestern University study just published in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology, there is evidence that lower socioeconomic status (SES) is associated with levels of DNA methylation (DNAm), a mechanism that cells use to control genetic expression.

Nearly 10 percent of the genes in a person’s genome (their complete genetic blueprint) are affected by poverty.

Poverty can mean different things to different people, but previous research has shown that social inequality, defined in part by lower than average income and/or education level, predict increased risk of heart disease (America’s leading cause of death), cancer, diabetes, and infectious diseases. These factors also contribute to the physiological processes that lead to such conditions as chronic inflammation and insulin resistance.

The Northwestern study concludes that our bodies “remember” the experiences of poverty and that these experiences affect our development. Follow-up studies will focus on determining whether DNAm “can leave a lasting molecular imprint on the body, with implications for health later in life,” according to Thomas McDade, lead author of the study.