Addressing Accelerated Genetic Aging in African Americans

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

Frederick Gibbons, a health-social psychologist at the University of Connecticut, has received more than $3 million from the National Cancer Institute to study behavioral and social factors that impact epigenetic aging in African Americans.

As we get older, our DNA gradually becomes more methylated which changes how genes are expressed. This process is responsible for many of the physical and mental changes associated with aging.

Accelerated epigenetic aging is when there is a difference between someone’s chronological age and the age of their DNA – essentially meaning the body is aging too fast. Accelerated aging has been linked to a number of illnesses including cancers, diabetes, and neurodegenerative disorders as well as mortality.

Accelerated epigenetic aging can result from a number of factors including genetics, stress, and lifestyle habits. African Americans are especially likely to experience accelerated epigenetic aging, but why this is the case is not known. Gibbons hopes to determine the cause of this relationship through this research project.

Previous studies on the effect of stress early in life on accelerated aging used mostly White sample groups even though African Americans are known to have significantly higher rates of almost every type of chronic illness and epigenetic aging.

This means the knowledge we currently have about the link between stress and epigenetic aging is not necessarily applicable to a minority group that is significantly more prone to suffer from its effects.

Gibbons will be looking at several factors that potentially accelerate aging in the African American population, with a primary goal being to compare the effects of  race-based stress (e.g. discrimination) with other types of stress, such as economic or environmental.

“We know that discrimination has many negative effects on African Americans, but until recently, we did not realize how much of an impact it has on their health,” Gibbons says. “Our data are showing that discrimination—especially when it is experienced early in life — may be a major contributor to the health disparities that exist in the US between Blacks and Whites.”

He also plans to look at the extent to which lifestyle choices, such as smoking or alcohol and other drug use, which are affected by stress, may be responsible in part for accelerated aging.

By developing better strategies to combat the negative impact of race and other types of  stress, Gibbons’ work could pave the way for future programs that could help prevent or delay the onset of chronic illness due to stress in this population.

Gibbons received his PhD in psychology with an emphasis on social psychology from the University of Texas at Austin. His work focuses on psychosocial factors related to health status and health behaviors with a specific focus on the effects of perceived racial discrimination on health behaviors of African Americans. He is a PI on the Family and Community Health Study, the largest panel study of African American families in the United States.

This study is NIH Grant No.: 1 R01 CA220254-01A1

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