Epigenetic changes, such as DNA methylation, have been hypothesized to provide a link between the social environment and disease development. The purpose of this study was to examine associations between life course measures of socioeconomic status (SES) and DNA methylation (DNAm) in 18 genes related to stress reactivity and inflammation using a multi-level modeling approach that treats DNAm measurements as repeat measures within an individual. DNAm and gene expression were assessed in purified monocytes for a random subsample of 1,264 non-Hispanic white, African-American, and Hispanic participants aged 55-94 from the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). After correction for multiple testing, we found that low childhood SES was associated with DNAm in 3 stress-related genes (AVP, FKBP5, OXTR) and 2 inflammation-related genes (CCL1, CD1D), low adult SES was associated with DNAm in one stress-related gene (AVP) and 5 inflammation-related genes (CD1D, F8, KLRG1, NLRP12, TLR3), and social mobility was associated with DNAm in 3 stress-related genes (AVP, FKBP5, OXTR) and 7 inflammation-related genes (CCL1, CD1D, F8, KLRG1, NLRP12, PYDC1, TLR3). In general, low SES was associated with increased DNAm. Expression data was available for 7 genes that showed a significant relationship between SES and DNAm. In 5 of these 7 genes (CD1D, F8, FKBP5, KLRG1, NLRP12), DNAm was associated with gene expression for at least one transcript, providing evidence of the potential functional consequences of alterations in DNAm related to SES. The results of this study reflect the biological complexity of epigenetic data and underscore the need for multi-disciplinary approaches to study how DNAm may contribute to the social patterning of disease.
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