The biology of inequalities in health: the LIFEPATH project
Keywords:social inequalities, socioeconomic status, healthy ageing, life-course, omics, biology.
Socioeconomic differences in health have been consistently observed worldwide. Physical health deteriorates more rapidly with age among men and women with lower socioeconomic status (SES) than among those with higher SES. The biological processes underlying these differences are best understood by adopting a life-course approach. In this paper we introduce the pan-European LIFEPATH project which uses the revised Strachan-Sheikh (2004) model to describe ageing across the life-course. This model presents ageing as a phenomenon with two broad stages across life: build-up and decline. The ‘build-up’ stage, from conception and early intra-uterine life to late adolescence or early twenties, is characterised by rapid successions of developmentally and socially sensitive periods. The second stage, starting in early adulthood, is a period of 'decline' from maximum attained health to loss of function, overt disease and death.
LIFEPATH adopts a study design that integrates social science and public health approaches with biology (including molecular epidemiology), using well-characterised population cohorts and omics measurements (particularly epigenomics). The specific objectives of the project are: (a) to show that healthy ageing is an achievable goal for society; (b) to improve the understanding of the mechanisms through which healthy ageing pathways diverge by SES, by investigating life-course biological pathways using omic technologies; (c) to examine the consequences of the current economic recession on health and the biology of ageing (and the consequent increase in social inequalities); (d) to provide updated, relevant and innovative evidence for healthy ageing policies (particularly “health in all policies”) using both observational studies and an experimental approach based on a reanalysis of data from a "conditional cash transfer" randomised experiment in New York and new data collected as part of an earned income tax credit randomised experiment in Atlanta and New York. To achieve these objectives, data are used from three categories of studies: 1. national census-based follow-up data to obtain mortality by socio-economic status; 2. cohorts with intense phenotyping and repeat biological samples; 3. large cohorts with biological samples. With these objectives and methodologies, LIFEPATH seeks to provide updated, relevant and innovative evidence to underpin future policies and strategies for the promotion of healthy ageing, targeted disease prevention and clinical interventions that address the issue of social disparities in ageing and the social determinants of health.
The present paper describes the design and some initial results of LIFEPATH as an example of the integration of social and biological sciences to provide evidence for public health policies.
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