Unravelling the Links between Housing Quality and Mental Health: It’s in our DNA

Faye Sanders headshot
Faye Sanders
Doctoral Researcher, University of Bath

Whilst associations between housing quality and health have been consistently identified in research studies, the pathways as to how these associations may occur are still not fully understood. 

There are likely to be a number of pathways as to which these associations can be partly explained by. For example, poor housing quality may mean individuals feel socially isolated if they are less likely to want to invite friends or guests into their home. One pathway which we wanted to research, was whether poor housing quality was associated with biological changes to DNA, and whether this then partly explained associations between poor housing quality and mental health.

In a sample of mothers from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, we found that DNA methylation of selected sites along the genome partly explained associations between poor housing quality and mental health. As a result, our findings indicate associations between housing quality and health may also be explained by biological pathways of DNA methylation (1). 

Pathways explaining associations between poor housing quality and mental health are unlikely to be completely independent. Biological and social pathways are likely to interact and could explain associations between poor housing quality and mental health when considered together.

We found that associations between poor housing quality and depressive symptoms were explained partly by DNA methylation in both early and mid-adulthood. Suggesting that these relationships may be consistent across this period of adulthood. However, to fully understand these relationships, we need to understand how these relationships change across the lifespan. Both the roles of housing quality and pathways of health vary greatly with age, social roles, and gender. Hence, we want to continue our investigations and repeat these analyses in a broader sample with a larger age range. 

Connections between housing quality and health are a complex topic with numerous other ‘variables’ likely to be playing a role in these associations. For example, housing quality is tightly linked to socioeconomic status, which also plays a critical role in health. Disentangling the effects of housing quality and closely related factors, such as socioeconomic status, on mental health is a difficult and arguably meaningless exercise. However, our research detecting associations between poor housing quality and depressive symptoms in a sample of higher socioeconomic status than previously researched, suggests associations between housing quality and mental health are not limited to contexts of lower socioeconomic status. 

As well as researching associations between housing quality and mental health, we have also investigated how housing quality associates with biological age. Whilst a study found that housing conditions were linked to individuals ageing faster, we found that these associations vary depending on the algorithm used to calculate biological age. It is really important to use a wide age range of people when training biological age algorithms, and to consider how well your sample matches the training sample, particularly for age. Hence, this research highlights how associations between housing quality and biological ageing can vary according to both age and methods used.

As I now embark on my PhD, I want to consider the wider context surrounding housing. As previously discussed, housing is part of a much wider system and considering it in isolation from other factors may not be too helpful. During my PhD I will be researching how where housing is located, is important for mobility and health. For example, how does people’s access to mobility infrastructure associate with their travel behaviour and hence their health? When I consider housing quality, I want to take a much broader approach in understanding how factors outside of the home, such as connectivity to infrastructure, play a role in human health.

  1. DNA methylation is a process which contributes to controlling expression of our genes. Whilst we have the same set of genes our entire lifetime, the expression of these genes change as a result of both genetic and environmental factors.

If you found this of interest, check out a selection of other resources curated on the Housing LIN’s dedicated housing and mental health pages at: https://www.housinglin.org.uk/Topics/browse/HousingMentalHealth/

We are also delighted that Faye will be joining our HAPPI Hour webinar on Tuesday 16 July 2024 from 4pm – 5pm where she will delve deeper into the connections between housing quality, DNA methylation and mental health during the session. Secure your FREE spot here!

Published to coincide with Mental Health Awareness Week, 13-19 May 2024


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