Renting linked to faster biological aging, study finds

Tuesday, 31 October, 2023

Renting linked to faster biological aging, study finds

Renting, rather than owning a private sector home, has a stronger link to faster ‘biological aging’ — the cumulative damage to the body’s tissues and cells, irrespective of actual age — compared to unemployment or being a former smoker, according to a new observational study from The University of Adelaide and the University of Essex.

Numerous aspects of housing are associated with physical and mental health, including cold, mould, crowding, injury hazards, stress and stigma. In order to explore how these aspects might exert their effects, the researchers drew on epigenetic information alongside social survey data and signs of biological aging, captured through evidence of DNA methylation in blood samples. Epigenetics describes how behaviours and environmental factors can cause changes that alter the way genes work, while DNA methylation is a chemical modification of DNA that can alter gene expression.

The team used data from the representative UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) and survey responses from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS), which also became part of UKHLS. They mined the information available in the UKHLS on material elements of housing, including tenure, building type, government financial support available to renters, the presence of central heating and whether the house was in an urban or rural area. Additional health information was subsequently collected from the 1420 BHPS survey respondents and blood samples were taken for DNA methylation analysis.

The results, published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, showed that living in a privately rented home was associated with faster biological aging — even taking into account factors such as socioeconomic status, diet, cumulative stress, financial hardship, urban environment, BMI and smoking status. What’s more, the impact of renting in the private sector, as opposed to outright ownership (with no mortgage), was almost double that of being out of work rather than being employed. It was also 50% greater than having been a former smoker as opposed to never having smoked.

When historical housing circumstances were added to the mix, repeated housing arrears and exposure to pollution/environmental problems were also associated with faster biological aging. Living in social housing, with its lower cost and greater security of tenure, was meanwhile no different to outright ownership in terms of its association with biological aging once additional housing variables were included.

The researchers acknowledged several limitations to their findings, including the fact that there were no contemporary measures of housing quality and that the DNA methylation data came only from white, European respondents. Nevertheless, they said their findings are likely to be relevant to housing and health elsewhere, particularly to countries with similar housing policies.

“Our results suggest that challenging housing circumstances negatively affect health through faster biological ageing,” the researchers wrote. “However, biological ageing is reversible, highlighting the significant potential for housing policy changes to improve health.

“Policies to reduce the stress and uncertainty associated with private renting, such as ending ‘no-fault’ (Section 21) evictions, limiting rent increases, and improving conditions (some of which have happened in parts of the UK since these data were collected) may go some way to reducing the negative impacts of private renting.”

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