From February 2017, information about the work of the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, University of Glasgow is available and updated on the University of Glasgow website.

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A new study has reviewed evidence linking people’s socioeconomic circumstances and telomere length - a marker of ‘biological age’. The research found lower education, but not poorer current socioeconomic status, was associated with shorter telomere length (indicating more rapid biological ageing).

Education, but not current socioeconomic circumstances, linked with accelerated biological ageing

posted on: Jan 14, 2013

A new study has reviewed evidence linking people’s socioeconomic circumstances and telomere length - a marker of ‘biological age’. The research found lower education, but not poorer current socioeconomic status, was associated with shorter telomere length (indicating more rapid biological ageing).

Research is increasingly interested in the specific biological processes that link people's social circumstances and their health. One of these is accelerated biological ageing, the rate at which our cells and organs deteriorate and our bodies lose function. One proposed way of measuring this is by using a biomarker called telomere length. Telomeres are structures present at the ends of our chromosomes (structures that store our DNA in a cell) that help to protect against irreversible genetic damage. As we age, our telomeres get progressively shorter, although the rate of this shortening is not identical for people of the same chronological age. This effectively makes telomere length a type of ‘biological clock’.

 
A new study by Tony Robertson and colleagues from the Unit, University College London and Glasgow University has reviewed the literature for all studies investigating the link between people’s socioeconomic circumstances and telomere length. Thirty one articles were identified and the results from each study were combined in a technique known as meta-analysis to provide a more reliable estimate of the association of interest. Three meta-analyses were conducted to compare the telomere lengths of persons of high and low socioeconomic circumstances with regard to current socioeconomic circumstances (10 individual articles), education (as a measure of early adulthood socioeconomic circumstances) (14 articles), and childhood socioeconomic circumstances (2 articles). The study found that telomere length was significantly shorter in people with fewer qualifications. There was no evidence for an association between telomere length and current or childhood socioeconomic circumstances. These results suggest some evidence for an association between socioeconomic circumstances (as measured by education) and biological ageing (as measured by telomere length), although the results are not consistent.
 
The reason for these inconsistent findings may be because education is an indicator of socioeconomic circumstances at the onset of adult life (when we move from our parents’ socioeconomic position to our own) that sets an individual’s socioeconomic trajectory for the future. Effects of socioeconomic circumstances on telomere length may take many years to accumulate, so compared to contemporaneous measures of socioeconomic position education may provide a more robust measure of a person’s socioeconomic position from their early adult life through to middle age.
More information can be found here. A full review protocol can also be found here.