Your Neighborhood Could Be Shortening Your Life By Negatively Impacting Your DNA, Says Study
Troubling news for people who don't live in the safest of areas: New research published in PLOS found that living in bad neighborhoods can lead to aging. The study's authors pointed out in their report that there have been many other previous studies that have found living in poor neighborhoods leads to poor health outcomes, but the impact it has on a cellular level is still largely unknown; the new research, however, uncovered a link between these neighborhoods and shorter "telomere" lengths. If you were looking for a reason to move... this might be it.
If you're wondering what telomeres are and what they can tell us about our health, here's the general gist: Telomeres are structures found at the end of chromosomes that are partly responsible for DNA replication. When a cell divides, its telomere becomes shorter, and with each additional division, it becomes shorter still. The shortening of telomeres is linked with aging, death, and illness, so you want to have really, really long telomeres to ensure a long and healthy life.
For this study, the researchers analyzed data from the Netherlands Study of Depression and Anxiety, which examined 2,981 Dutch citizens between the ages of 18 and 65. They calculated how long each person's telomere length was, as well as the quality of the neighborhood they lived in. To do this, they asked participants about factors such as the level of noise, their fear of crime, and how safe they felt walking alone there. They also made sure to control for socioeconomic status and lifestyle factors of the individuals, to make the results as accurate as possible.
The results? The worse participants reported their neighborhoods to be, the shorter their telomeres. Those who lived in moderately safe neighborhoods had telomeres there were an average of 69 base pairs shorter than those who lived in favorable areas, while those who lived in poor neighborhoods had telomeres that were an average of 174 base pairs shorter. The researchers calculated how many years shorter this would make the average participant's life and found that those who lived in moderately safe neighborhoods would shorten their lives by eight years. For those who lived in poor neighborhoods, the length by which their lives were shortened was almost 12 years.
Even though these results suggest alarm, lead study author Mijung Park of the University of Pittsburgh told The New York Times that because this study was observationally based, a strong cause and effect relationship can't be established. Going back to high school statistics, you may remember that correlation doesn't equal causation. In other words, just because two things are linked doesn't mean they are caused by one another.
"We have established an association between perceived neighborhood quality and cellular aging over and above a range of individual attributes. Biological aging processes may be impacted by socioeconomic milieu," the authors wrote in their report. So, this aging could be influenced by other factors. Nevertheless, Park emphasized to The New York Times the huge implication of this study's findings: “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.”
In the meantime, you may want to reconsider moving into that crummy studio apartment and stick to living in areas that you know are safe, even if it means living with roommates.