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Release Date: 12/12/2016

Previous research has connected hardships and poverty during children with obesity in adulthood, but a new study performed at Memorial Hospital’s Clinical Studies Center in the Center for Primary Care and Prevention with a Brown University team, reveals that the association is likely made through regulation of genes called epigenetics.

Charles B. Eaton, MD, MS, director of the Center for Primary Care and Prevention at Memorial, a Care New England facility, was one of several principal investigators of the study that led to the publication “Epigenetic Mediators Between Childhood Socioeconomic Disadvantage and Mid-Life Body Mass Index: The New England Family Study” in the professional journal Psychosomatic Medicine. This sub-study of a large birth cohort study has men and women from before birth through the age of 47 and is aimed at identifying risk factors that may have epigenetic and early developmental childhood origins. One hundred and forty seven participants in the study were examined at Memorial and had fat biopsies and body fat and carotid artery atherosclerosis measured.

“The objective of this recently published research was to evaluate whether an individual’s socioeconomic struggles in childhood alter his or her DNA methylation, a process that determines which genes are expressed in different cells or tissues,” Dr. Eaton explains. “Both histones and methylation are processes that regulate gene expression and determine whether a cell is a muscle cell or a brain cell or fat cell. The pattern of methylation has been shown to be associated with the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease and becoming obese.

“Epigenetics appears to play a central role in fetal development, and we know that early childhood is a sensitive period during which external environmental stimuli can have considerable influence on the establishment of epigenetic patterning,” he says, adding that this appears to be particularly true for women.

In the Memorial study, three genes were found to have associations with both socioeconomic disadvantage and obesity in women and one gene in men. A review of the medical literature showed that 70 percent of studies evaluating women show a connection between childhood disadvantage and obesity in adulthood, compared with only 27 percent of studies evaluating men.

“There has been some research that examined this alteration through changes in white blood cells, but we analyzed both white blood cells and fat tissue samples taken from study participants as we were interested in obesity,” Dr. Eaton notes. “We found only associations in the fat tissue.”

In identifying the impact of socioeconomic disadvantage, a topic Dr. Eaton says will be pursued through further research, the team hopes to spark the creation of interventions to change the eventual outcomes.

The Center for Primary Care and Prevention, a collaboration between Memorial and Brown University, is dedicated to promoting research, knowledge enrichment and improving practice in primary care and prevention. Its research aims to help providers in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of various illnesses and their risk factors.

In addition to his research, Dr. Eaton sees patients in Memorial’s Family Care Clinic. For an appointment with him, call (401) 729-2769.

About Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island

Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, a Care New England hospital, serves as the major teaching affiliate of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University and the chief site for the medical school's primary care academic program. Research focuses on primary care and disease prevention, including osteoarthritis, heart disease, cancer, pulmonary function, maternal and child health and women’s health issues.

Memorial provides health services for the people of Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts including oncology, cardiovascular, orthopedics, rehabilitation, pain management, and diagnostics. Memorial offers primary care services in Pawtucket, Central Falls and Plainville, Massachusetts.