Cost of cuts: Austerity’s toxic genetic legacy

Cost of cuts: Austerity’s toxic genetic legacy
Psychological stress brought on by the economic crisis may trigger genes that threaten the long-term health of future generations

By Andy CoghlanNew Scientist

From financial breakdown in Portugal to the UK’s so-called bedroom tax, the harsh effects of austerity measures are hitting people in ways unseen in decades. 

Many are focused on the most imminent challenges to their well-being – increased costs of living and job security, for example. But new insights into how genes linked with disease are triggered in times of stress suggest that we should be paying just as much attention to the long-term effects of austerity on our health.

The more immediate health impacts of economic cuts were documented last month in The Lancet (doi.org/k4c), revealing that suicides in Europe have soared since the financial crash in 2008, with 1000 extra deaths in England alone by 2010. Likewise, the incidence of mental health disorders has increased in countries worst hit by debt crises, such as Greece and Spain. Greece has also seen a surge in HIV infections among intravenous drug users, from about 15 per year before 2010 to 314 in 2012. Some people in Greece are even suspected of purposefully infecting themselves with HIV to obtain healthcare otherwise unavailable as a result of budget cuts.

But there are more subtle, and just as concerning, effects on health. A review published last month highlights research demonstrating how psychological stress leads to long-lasting changes in genes that trigger chronic inflammation. This is bad news – chronic inflammation can raise the risk of heart attacks, depression and even cancer.

While the studies focused on stressors such as loneliness and social rejection, the biological mechanisms involved are thought to be triggered by any sudden or chronic psychological stress, such as losing a job, home or welfare support“Insofar as our genomes are responsive to such threats, there exists the possibility that our genes may be partly responsible for links between financial crises and health,” says George Slavich of the University of California, Los Angeles, a co-author of the review (Clinical Psychological Science, Full Article Here).

There is already historic evidence of increases in mental health problems and heart attacks following job losses. A study as far back as 1979, for example, showed that in the UK between 1936 and 1976, deaths from heart disease began to rise between two and three years after periods of high unemployment, and continued for a decade. A 2006 study in the Netherlands covering the years 1815 to 2000 showed that generations born during recessions have abnormally high rates of early death.

So what’s going on? During stressful events, the brain and other parts of the central nervous system flood the body with stress hormones such as cortisol. These activate cell surface receptors that instruct the cell to switch on genes that stoke inflammation. The result is a surge of chemicals that accelerate wound healing and combat infections.

While these mechanisms can be crucial to our survival, persistent stimulation brought on by psychological stress – which includes the anticipation of unpleasant events, such as the threat of unemployment – may lead to detrimental levels of ongoing inflammation.

In 2010, Slavich demonstrated the link by exposing volunteers to acute social stress. Those who were shy or abnormally sensitive to social rejection were more likely to show activation of pro-inflammatory genes – presumably because they found the situation more stressful (PNASdoi.org/cvcq2c).

The link is also supported by experiments in animals. Jenny Tung and her colleagues at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, deliberately manipulated social status and stress levels in macaques. The lower the animal’s social rank, the more active their pro-inflammatory genes. Tung says it was even possible to identify an individual macaque’s rank purely by measuring their gene profiles in white blood cells (PNASdoi.org/k4g).

Because white blood cells often stick around for years in the body, the impact of the initial stress could remain genetically and biologically embedded long afterwards, Slavich says.

“The connection between chronic stress and illness is pretty clear,” says Terrie Moffitt, also at Duke University, who studies the long-term impact of maltreatment on children. The idea that this connection is mediated by altered gene regulation is “a great hypothesis”, she says, “but a series of connections has to be made, from measured stress to measured gene regulation, and from gene regulation to disease vulnerability.”

Stress could even have an impact across generations, according to research presented this week at the British Neuroscience Association Festival in London. Megan Holmes at the University of Edinburgh, UK, and colleagues genetically engineered mouse fetuses to lack an enzyme called 11-beta-HSD2. This normally protects pups from exposure to cortisol from the mother. The pups were born underweight and showed evidence of shyness and withdrawal in adulthood.

Stress has been shown to affect levels of this enzyme in humans. Vivette Glover at Imperial College London found that 11-beta-HSD2 levels were 30 per cent lower in the placentas of women who had reported the highest levels of prenatal anxiety (Psychoneuroendocrinology, doi.org/csmmtc). Whether this had any effect on the mental health of the children is unclear, but Glover says it supports the idea that stress during pregnancy could possibly reprogram fetal development.

“There is more and more research showing the effects of prenatal stress on the long-term development of children,” says Glover. ”It’s likely that if people are feeling more stressed because of austerity, unemployment and so on, it will have a damaging effect on the next generation.”

“There is no hard data on this, but it is very likely that austerity can have persistent effects across generations,” agrees Isabelle Mansuy of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who has previously demonstrated that the effects of stress can be passed down through three generations of mice.

Whether gene-reprogramming affects the immediate victims of recession alone, or their descendants too, all researchers contacted by New Scientist agree that further investigation is vital. “We need to know a lot more about the long-term consequences of these stresses,” says David Stuckler of the University of Oxford.

This article appeared in print under the headline “Austerity’s toxic genetic legacy”

See also: ”The hidden costs of austerity

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