The economic crisis has shaped people’s DNA


A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the cells of people conceived and economically affected during the Great Depression , which lasted from 1929 to 1939 show signs of accelerated aging . The study is based on changes in the epigenome of cells – the set of chemical markers in DNA that determine when, where and to what extent genes are expressed in each cell. The authors believe the pattern of markers they discovered could be linked to higher rates of chronic disease and death.


The work, released Nov. 8, adds to a series of studies indicating how exposure to hardships like stress and hunger during early development can affect human health for decades .

While the study is hardly the first to link major historical events to changes in the epigenome, the fact that the signal still appears in data collected on people in their 70s and 80s is “shocking,” says Patrick Allard, an environmental epigeneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“What we see from this study is that the socioeconomic structural inequalities that make it difficult for women to access the care they need can have long-term consequences,” says Lauren Schmitz, co-author of the study. With social inequality on the rise around the world, the findings also highlight how paid parental leave, welfare payments and other policies and programs can help smooth out health inequalities in the future.


“What we experience in the first nine months can affect us for life,” says Schmitz. “I think as a society we can agree that experiencing a recession before you’re even born shouldn’t affect your lifespan.”

  • In utero exposure to the Great Depression is reflected in late-life epigenetic aging signatures. (


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