The health of babies born in deprived areas could be damaged for the rest of their lives long before they have even left the womb, according to research.
They have found stressful conditions experienced by expectant mothers in impoverished areas because of poor lifestyle choices could impact on their children’s DNA – leaving them with an increased chance of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Genes were found to be affected within the first few weeks of an embryo’s development – meaning some mothers in deprived postcodes could be putting their children at harm without knowing they are pregnant. Experts in epigenetics – which explores how someone’s environment and lifestyle choices can influence their genetic code, and that of their children. They believe factors experienced by expectant mothers in areas of deprivation cause “bugs” to develop in the DNA of embryos, with the children more susceptible to early onset of diseases when they become adults.
The researchers found significant differences in levels of “methylation” in the DNA of people from different ends of the socio-economic spectrum. DNA methylation is a natural biochemical process which controls how genes work. The majority of this methylation content is fixed for life in humans from just a few weeks after conception as the structure of the body and organs is formed. Enzymes in the body create chemical “tags” which are imprinted on to DNA to switch on or off genes at the right time and in the right place. Most of these tags stay in place for the rest of an individual’s life. The tags are “read” by cells, similar to the way software’s binary code is processed by computers, and ensure each cell switches on or off only the genes it is supposed to in order to ensure the body works correctly and remains healthy. However, lower levels of methylation can impair this process, increasing the chances of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Charities campaigning to tackle child poverty described the research as “startling evidence” of the impact poverty can have on children before they have even left the womb.
Professor Carol Tannahill, director of the Glasgow Centre for Population Health, which funded the research as part of an ongoing public health study known as pSoBid, said: “The association between deprivation and ill-health is well established, but the pathways through which deprivation leads to poorer health outcomes are less well understood. Previous findings from the study have confirmed that people with relatively low income, living in poor circumstances, have more miles on their biological clock than people of the same age in better circumstances. The new findings add evidence that people in poorer socio-economic circumstances may face an uphill health challenge from before birth. Health inequalities are a reflection of wider inequalities in society. We are now learning that these inequalities have direct epigenetic effects..."