Contemporaneous Social Environment and the Architecture of Late-Life Gene Expression Profiles

Environmental or social challenges can stimulate a cascade of coordinated physiological changes in stress response systems. Unfortunately, chronic activation of these adaptations, under conditions such as low socioeconomic status (SES), can have negative consequences for long-term health. While there is substantial evidence tying low SES to increased disease risk and reduced life expectancy, the underlying biology remains poorly understood. Using pilot data on 120 older adults from the Health and Retirement Study (2002-2010), we examined the associations between SES and gene expression levels in adulthood, with particular focus on a gene expression program known as the conserved transcriptional response to adversity. We also used a bioinformatics-based approach to assess the activity of specific gene regulation pathways involved in inflammation, antiviral responses, and stress-related neuro-endocrine signaling. Results showed that low SES was related to increased expression of conserved transcriptional response to adversity genes and distinct patterns of pro-inflammatory, antiviral, and stress signaling (e.g., Sympathetic Nervous System and Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis) transcription factor activation.