Living in a neighbourhood with a high crime rate can take more than a decade off your life, research has suggested. The “biological” age of residents in noisy areas plagued by vandalism and crime is 12 years higher than their peers who reside in more peaceful places.
The researchers looked at genetic material called telomeres, the protective “caps” at the ends of DNA strands that control cells’ longevity. Telomeres have been described as “the ageing clock in every cell”, a marker of true biological age. Factors such as stress, smoking, obesity, poor sleep and nutrition all affect how quickly telomeres degrade, but this is the first time crime has been shown to play a role. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell copies itself. Ultimately, if they become too short, the DNA begins to degrade and cells lose their function. Telomeres get trimmed each time the cell divides because they are not fully copied by enzyme mechanisms and it is believed that ageing occurs when they become too short for DNA replication and cell division to proceed normally.
The study found that those living in the worst neighbourhoods had the shortest caps. Prof Mijung Park, of the University of Pittsburgh, said: “Our team examined whether these environments have a direct impact on cellular health. "We found that indeed, biological ageing processes could be influenced by socio-economic conditions.” Prof Park said that telomere shortening can be accelerated with exposure to biological or psychological stresses such as cancer, anxiety and depression. Her team examined telomere length in the white blood cells of 2,902 Dutch individuals participating in the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety. They determined which participants lived in good or poor neighbourhoods using measures of perceived disorder, fear of crime and noise. “The differences in telomere length between the two groups were comparable to 12 years in chronological age,” Prof Park said. “It is possible their cells are chronically activated in response to psychological and physiological stresses created by disadvantaged socio-economic, political and emotional circumstances.”