Three-Nation Research to Examine Relationships Between Social Factors and Epigenetics

$2.9 million National Institute on Aging grant to Eileen Crimmins supports collaboration of large studies in US, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland to answer questions about how life circumstances affect gene expression and health.

University Professor Eileen Crimmins portrait
University Professor Eileen Crimmins

A new three-nation project will examine how social, economic, psychological, environmental and behavioral circumstances in childhood influence gene expression and affect health and aging later in life.

The cooperation brings together large longitudinal studies in the US, Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. This unique international collaboration will examine social, economic, health and epigenetic data from the three national studies to find out how adversity, trauma and other factors impact the epigenome – how genes turn “on” or “off” – and how these changes affect health and aging, said University Professor Eileen Crimmins, holder of the AARP Chair in Gerontology at the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology. Previous epigenetics research indicates that stressors, such as hunger, neglect and violence, in childhood can result in epigenome changes that persist for decades.

“This project will be unique in evaluating how a variety of social circumstances, including low levels of education and income, minority group membership, adverse childhood experiences, adult traumas, risky health behaviors, psychological states, and chronic stress, are associated with epigenetic markers in three different countries, with somewhat different historical, social and behavioral characteristics which are operating in different health policy regimes,” Crimmins explained.

A $2.9 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to Crimmins will support the involvement of the US Health and Retirement Study in the project, of which Crimmins is a principal investigator; Associate Research Scientist Jessica Faul of the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research is a co-principal investigator on the grant. The HRS will join forces with the Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing (TILDA) and the Northern Ireland COhort for the Longitudinal study of Ageing (NICOLA), both of which also received funding from their respective nations for the project. Besides USC and Michigan, researchers at Trinity College Dublin, the University of Minnesota, the University of California Los Angeles, Yale University, and Queen’s University Belfast are taking part in the project.

With TILDA and NICOLA having been modeled off of the HRS, which is now in its 30th year, a notable strength of the collaboration is that the three studies have been designed for sharing information from the start, Crimmins added.

“These three studies have been harmonized in the survey information and the development of the epigenetic data in the three countries,” Crimmins said. “Each country has strong independent research teams who bring unique expertise and resources and a history of collaboration to this collaborative project.”

Professor Rose Anne Kenny, Principal Investigator of TILDA and Head of Medical Gerontology at Trinity College Dublin, said she and her colleagues look forward to contributing their expertise and acquiring a better understanding of how life course social circumstances influence epigenetic change and subsequent health in later life.

“Multimorbidity, frailty, and disability remain a significant challenge for the individual, families, governments, and policymakers,” Kenny said. “This will provide us with new approaches for prevention, and possibly treatment.”

Professor Amy Jayne McKnight, who is leading the NICOLA component of this international project, is enthusiastic about the potential for this project to identify new links between people’s life experiences and subsequent health outcomes.

“This US-Ireland funding mechanism facilitates excellent collaborative research across our three countries,” she said. “Working together, we will improve our understanding of the biology underlying healthy aging and provide a strong legacy for future projects.”