Hum Mol Genet. 2022 Jul 28:ddac171. doi: 10.1093/hmg/ddac171. Online ahead of print.
Childhood socioeconomic position (SEP) is a major determinant of health and well-being across the entire life course. To effectively prevent and reduce health risks related to SEP, it is critical to better understand when and under what circumstances socioeconomic adversity shapes biological processes. DNA methylation (DNAm) is one such mechanism for how early life adversity ‘gets under the skin’. In this study, we evaluated the dynamic relationship between SEP and DNAm across childhood using data from 946 mother-child pairs in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC). We assessed six SEP indicators spanning financial, occupational, and residential domains during very-early childhood (ages 0-2), early childhood (ages 3-5), and middle childhood (ages 6-7). Epigenome-wide DNAm were measured at 412956 CpGs from peripheral blood at age 7. Using an innovative two-stage structured life course modeling approach, we tested three life-course hypotheses for how SEP shapes DNAm profiles-accumulation, sensitive period, and mobility. We showed that changes in the socioeconomic environment were associated with the greatest differences in DNAm, and that middle childhood may be a potential sensitive period when socioeconomic instability is especially important in shaping DNAm. Top SEP-related DNAm CpGs were overrepresented in genes involved in pathways important for neural development, immune function, and metabolic processes. Our findings highlight the importance of socioeconomic stability during childhood and if replicated, may emphasize the need for public programs to help children and families experiencing socioeconomic instability and other forms of socioeconomic adversity.