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Socioeconomic Status and Health: Emergence of Underlying Biological Mechanisms

By Yamna Rizwan

MSc Candidate, University of Guelph

posted: May 3rd, 2019

Recent research by McDade et al. (2019) from Northwestern University has linked low socioeconomic status with increased levels of methylated DNA. They found 2,546 sites of DNA methylation within 1,537 genes, where there was a statistically significant difference between those living in low socioeconomic conditions compared to those living in high socioeconomic conditions. Within these sites, 1,777 had increased methylation in those with low socioeconomic status compared to those with high socioeconomic status. These findings shed light on the underlying biological mechanisms of how socioeconomic factors can lead to poor health and disease.

This research adds to a large base of literature signifying socioeconomic status as a major determinant of health. Having a low socioeconomic status (such as relating to education, income, employment, and living conditions) has been linked to health-damaging behaviours and as a predictor of increased risk for all-cause mortality (Nandi et al., 2014). Furthermore, physiological processes that can lead to disease, such as chronic inflammation and insulin resistance, have also been linked with low socioeconomic status (Chen & Miller, 2013).

Both the Government of Canada and the World Health Organization classify income and social status, employment and working conditions, as well as education and literacy as major factors determining health and disease in individuals. The former has created the Health Inequalities Data Tool as a data measure of health status and determinants in different Canadian populations, as a research tool for further action to promote health equity in accordance with the Rio Political Declaration on Social Determinants of Health.

The emergence of more research focused on the biological mechanisms underlying the link between low socioeconomic status and disease pathology will lead to better-informed action plans and initiatives from governments and international health agencies.



Chen, E., & Miller, G. E. (2013). Socioeconomic Status and Health: Mediating and

Moderating Factors. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 9(1), 723–749. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-050212-185634

Government of Canada. (2018, September 25). Social determinants of health and health inequalities. Retrieved from https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/health-promotion/population-health/what-determines-health.html


McDade, T. W., Ryan, C. P., Jones, M. J., Hoke, M. K., Borja, J., Miller, G. E., . . . Kobor, M. S. (2019). Genome‐wide analysis of DNA methylation in relation to socioeconomic status during development and early adulthood. American Journal of Physical Anthropology, 169(1), 3-11. doi:10.1002/ajpa.23800


World Health Organization. (n.d.). Health Impact Assessment (HIA). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/hia/evidence/doh/en/