UGA study finds link between early-life exposure to famine and high cholesterol later in life

New research from the University of Georgia has revealed that early exposure to long periods of severe food deprivation can lead to high cholesterol later in life.

The study, which appeared in Clinical Epigenetics in June, found that children and babies who lived through the Chinese Great Famine had detectably higher levels of total cholesterol in late adulthood.

“Previous famine studies have demonstrated that famine increases the risk of hypertension, insulin resistance, obesity, and dyslipidemia,” said Luqi Shen, an epidemiology doctoral candidate in UGA’s College of Public Health and lead author on the study.

Drastic environmental changes like a famine can cause genes to alter their function. This process, known as methylation, can sometimes lead to long-term impacts on our health.

Shen and CPH colleague Changwei Li wanted to look at how one particular gene, IGF2, was affected by the famine.

IFG2 plays a pivotal role in human development and growth, and methylation in this gene can cause serious developmental disorders at birth and higher risk for cardiovascular disease in adulthood.

“This gene is vulnerable to early-life environmental interference, and more importantly, once changed in early-life, methylation level in the gene is less likely to be influenced by environmental factors during adulthood,” said Shen.

“This unique feature provides us an opportunity to evaluate the impact of early-life famine exposure on methylation of the gene five decades after the famine.”

Using data from the Genomic Research of the Chinese Famine (GRECF) study, researchers tested associations between famine severity, DNA methylation in the IGF2 gene, and lipid levels.

After controlling for age, gender, and other lifestyle habits known to impact cholesterol, they found that early-life exposure to famine was linked to IGF2 methylation as well as high total cholesterol levels among study participants.

The findings provide the first evidence that methylation of the IGF2 gene is linked to cholesterol levels.

The full article, “Early-life exposure to severe famine is associated with higher methylation level in the IGF2 gene and higher total cholesterol in late adulthood: the Genomic Research of the Chinese Famine (GRECF) study,” can be found online. Read it here.

In addition to Shen and Li, co-authors include Zhenghe Wang, Ruiyuan Zhang, Ye Shen, Toni Miles, Jingkai Wei and Zhiyong Zou.

– Lauren Baggett

Posted on July 1, 2019.

Additional coverage via ASPPH Friday Letter.