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Longevity Briefs: Privately Rented Accommodation Is Associated With More Rapid Biological Ageing

Posted on 11 October 2023

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Longevity briefs provides a short summary of novel research in biology, medicine, or biotechnology that caught the attention of our researchers in Oxford, due to its potential to improve our health, wellbeing, and longevity.

Why is this research important: Thanks to algorithms called epigenetic clocks, scientists can now estimate how quickly someone is ageing based on the chemical changes to their DNA. This grants us an approximation of their true biological age, as opposed to their chronological age (the number of years since they were born). If epigenetic clocks place someone at age 30, this means that the chemical changes in their DNA are consistent with that of the average 30 year-old. Depending on this person’s chronological age, this could suggest that they are ageing more rapidly or more slowly than expected.

Previous studies have looked at how housing conditions such as pollution and noise can affect epigenetic ageing. The subject of today’s study, however, is something that has not been studied in the context of ageing to the best of our knowledge: the psychosocial aspect of housing. Do factors such as property ownership, rent and benefit status have an impact on epigenetic ageing?

What did the researchers do: The researchers used data from a large UK survey covering a representative sample of around 40,000 households. The survey included health data as well as housing data. This housing data included both housing quality (such as noise, space, heating and the presence of leaks) as well as less tangible aspects such as tenure, whether respondents struggled to pay rent on time and whether participants aspired to move out or stay.

Some of the variables assessed as part of the survey, showing the proportion of participants who gave each response.
Are housing circumstances associated with faster
epigenetic ageing?

Blood samples from about 56% of eligible participants were also collected and analysed, and the epigenetic age of participants of white ethnicity was estimated using an epigenetic clock called DunedinPoAm. This is a so-called ‘second generation’ epigenetic clock, which means that it was developed with a focus on predicting health outcomes. It estimates the rate at which someone is ageing, and its output has been shown to correlate well with future health outcomes.

Key takeaway(s) from this research:

  • Renting privately was associated with an increased pace of ageing when compared to outright home ownership.
  • This effect was greater than that of unemployment or being a former smoker.
  • People living in social housing did not age more rapidly than homeowners after accounting for confounding variables.
  • Though this study can’t establish causation, uncertainty and stress offer a plausible explanation for the correlation between private renting and ageing.

As suggested by previous studies, factors like pollution were associated with more rapid biological ageing. Interestingly, the researchers also found that people who rented privately aged faster on average than those who owned their homes outright, as did those who struggled to pay rent on time.

Homeowners are of course more likely to be wealthier than those who rent, though researchers did attempt to control for this and other confounding factors. Intriguingly however, living in social housing was no different to outright ownership when it came to associations with ageing once confounding factors had been accounted for. The study also found that the apparent age-accelerating effect of private renting was twice that of being unemployed and 50% more than that of being a former smoker.

As an observational study, this research doesn’t prove that privately renting causes more rapid ageing, and also may not be generalisable to all ethnicities and housing markets given its focus on white UK residents. It’s plausible, though, that the uncertainty and stress associated with private renting (such as the threat of rent hikes and eviction) may accelerate biological ageing to some degree. This may explain why social housing, with its greater security of tenure, was not associated with faster ageing when compared to owning a property. 

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    Are housing circumstances associated with faster epigenetic ageing?

    Title image by Timusic Photographs, Upslash

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