Renting ages your cells faster than unemployment or being an ex-smoker
A new study has found that renting privately is more strongly associated with faster biological aging – how old your cells are regardless of actual age – than unemployment or being an ex-smoker. The findings highlight the important link between housing and health and indicate that improving housing should be a focus of health interventions.
Housing is often cited as an important social determinant of health, with a lack of secure, safe, good-quality, affordable housing associated with a range of poor mental and physical health outcomes. What is less well-understood is the way the material and psychosocial characteristics of housing affect health.
Researchers from the University of Adelaide, South Australia, have examined how different housing-related factors affect biological aging, accumulated damage to the body’s cells that indicates how old you are internally, as distinct from chronological age. For many diseases, biological age is an important risk factor: the older cells are, the more susceptible they are to disease.
The researchers examined social survey data alongside epigenetic information, measured using DNA methylation, to see if there is a pathway through which housing affects health. Epigenetics is the study of how behaviors and environment can cause changes that affect the way genes work rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
They obtained data from 1,420 respondents to the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), who’d provided blood samples from which methylation data was available. The researchers considered all possible housing elements available in the data to reflect the varied and complex role housing plays in people’s lives. This included material elements (e.g., tenure, building type, whether government financial support was available, urban or rural location) and psychosocial elements (e.g., housing costs, payment arrears, overcrowding).
When analyzing the data, the researchers accounted for potentially influential factors such as sex, nationality, education level, socioeconomic status, diet, cumulative stress, financial hardship, weight, and smoking. Because chronological and biological aging occurs in tandem, this was also factored in.
The researchers found that biological aging was faster among private renters than those who owned their houses outright (that is, no mortgage). Compared to unemployment and being an ex-smoker, renting privately was associated with a greater impact on aging: almost double that of being unemployed and 50% greater than having been a former smoker.
However, the researchers found that the effect on biological aging of living in public housing, with its low cost and greater security of tenure, was no different than outright home ownership, despite the social stigma that’s usually attached to this kind of housing.
When the researchers added in historical housing variables, experiencing housing payment arrears or living in a house with pollution, grime, or other environmental problems was related to faster biological aging. To explain why the historical, but not the contemporary, experience of arrears was linked to biological aging, the researchers suggest it’s related to the repeated experience of being in arrears.
“The significant role played by tenure and arrears in our analysis highlights the role of psychosocial factors linking housing with health via biological aging,” said the researchers.
Importantly, the researchers note that epigenetic changes are reversible and their health impacts could be avoided through changes to housing policies.
“Greater support with housing costs and restrictions on increasing housing costs may protect people from housing arrears and its health consequences,” the researchers said. “DNA methylation is reversible, suggesting that improving or changing the conditions for people with faster biological aging can correct this, and health effects be mitigated or reversed.”
The study was observational and, therefore, can’t establish causation, and the researchers acknowledge its limitations, including that there were no measures of contemporary housing variables and DNA methylation data came from only white, European respondents. However, they say their findings are relevant to housing and health outside of the UK, particularly to countries with similar housing policies.
The study was published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.