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Mijung Park, PhD, MSN, MPH

The link between neighborhood quality and Biological Aging

The speed of chronological age is the same for everyone. Every 365 days, we become one year older. It does not matter who we are. Biologically, however, we age at different speeds. In other words, some people age faster than others on a cellular level. So then the question is, what ages us, and who ages faster than others? These are interesting scientific questions.

How do we measure our biological age? One of the biological markers of cellular aging is the length of a telomere. Telomeres are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA. They protect genetic information, like the plastic tips at the ends of shoelaces. Telomeres get shorter each time a cell copies itself. Because cells constantly divide, telomeres get shorter at a steady rate. However, there are certain things—like stress, illness, smoking or obesity—that are known to speed up the aging process.

Our study looked at whether living in lower-resource neighborhoods is related to faster cellular aging. By distressed neighborhoods, we mean those with high crime rates, vandalism and noise. We thought that living in lower-resource neighborhoods would increase the level of stress and, in turn, quicken telomere shortening. We found that, when comparing two individuals of the same age, sex and other characteristics, those who live in lower-resource neighborhoods are biologically older than those who do not. The differences in telomere length between the two groups were comparable to 12 years in chronological age.

Our paper is one of the very early studies examining social conditions in the context of biological aging. Therefore, I would like to caution people about applying our findings directly to social change. However, the gaps in living conditions between the people living in lower-resource neighborhoods and people who do not have been growing over the past decades.

We need to look for ways to improve the living conditions of the people in our disadvantaged communities.


Get involved

Working toward a more equitable, healthier society is going to take all of us working together. As citizens, it is our responsibility to stand up for the health interests of our families, our communities and ourselves. A number of local organizations are providing information on how to get involved in improving our health care system. Some of these organizations are even working to organize communities to take direct action and use their power as voters to help change laws. If you want to get involved, contact one of these local organizations to get a better understanding of how you can join the movement:

Allies for Children: 412-586-0880

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): 412-681-7736

Consumer Health Coalition: 412-456-1877

Pittsburgh United: 412-231-8648

Put People First! PA: 412-482-0041


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