According to new research, the Great Depression shaped the rates of aging for nearly everyone affected, including babies not yet even born. Researchers recently discovered that people conceived between 1929 and 1939 in the US show signs of accelerated aging today. At the time of the Great Depression, American saw over a quarter of its total workforce unemployed.
The authors of the study came to this remarkable conclusion by measuring the changes in the cells of the people still alive nearly a century later. Researchers specifically noted the cells’ epigenome, or the collection of chemical markers attached to DNA that determines when, where and by how much genes are expressed in each cell.
In those cells, the research team found evidence of rapid aging and chronic illness. The study adds further credibility to the growing claim that stress and intense hardship (like starvation), especially in foundational years, can shape human health for decades to come.
Although this study is not the first to link major historical events (like the Great Depression or other wars) to changes in the epigenome, the data is still “mind-blowing,” says Patrick Allard, an environmental epigeneticist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s definitely something that will make its way into the textbooks,” he says.
Epigenome tags, which originate during pregnancy, affect everything from hormones to physical features
Much of the scientific community’s interest in epigenome research began in 2008 when researchers discovered a link between metabolic illness and conception during a Dutch famine in the 1940s. In that particular study, scientists suspected that exposure to malnutrition during early development permanently shaped how the people’s bodies processed food.
As a result, many research hospitals began to commission studies linking pollutants, stress, and diet during early childhood development to all sorts of longterm conditions. Mostly conducted in animals, these studies have commonly found links to hair color, size, and brain development, just to name a few. Similar studies of humans produce fewer obvious connections, which makes the Great Depression study very exciting for the scientific community.
By comparing DNA of about 800 people who were born throughout the 1930s, the team observed that people born in the United States have a pattern of markers that make their cells look older than they should look. Interestingly, the DNA markers changed based upon which state the person grew up in, but the data routinely pointed to rapid aging and other quality of life issues in all participants.
“What we experience in those first nine months may affect us our entire lives,” says co-author Lauren Schmitz, an economist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I think we as a society can agree that experiencing a recession before you’re even born shouldn’t affect how long you live.”