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Renting Rather Than Owning a Home Linked to Faster Biological Aging

A toy house next to a set of keys.
Credit: Tierra Mallorca/Unsplash
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A new study has shown that renting a home, rather than outright home ownership, has been linked to faster biological aging – the deterioration and accumulation of damage in our cells. The research, which also highlights how repeatedly falling into arrears and exposure to pollution may accelerate biological aging, is published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

Housing circumstances and health impacts

Links between housing circumstances and health – both mental and physical – are well established. Cold, mold, crowding and injury hazards from housing can have a profound health impact.

To unpick how these kinds of housing circumstances can exert negative health effects, the current study, led by researchers from the University of Adelaide, opted to measure changes in biological age.

Biological age, also known as physiological age, is a combination of genetics and lifestyle factors that reflect the damage accumulated by our cells and tissues over time. This means a person’s biological age can differ from their chronological age.

Measuring chronological age is easy, but how can we measure biological age? Chemical modifications to our DNA – known as epigenetic changes – are one promising measure, the main example being DNA methylation. This is the addition of chemical groups onto DNA – known as methyl groups – that affect how our genes are expressed into proteins.

Levels of DNA methylation naturally change with chronological age, but increased biological age is linked to sedentary lifestyles, chronic illness or poor physical condition, and can therefore be a useful tool for predicting the onset of disease and death.

The researchers used social survey information alongside epigenetic data from blood samples to capture how different housing circumstances may impact biological aging.

Private renting linked to faster biological aging

The researchers used data from two databases: the UK Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) and the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). Information was extracted on housing tenure, building type, central heating and location (urban versus rural), as well as psychosocial elements such as payment arrears, costs, overcrowding and moving expectations/preferences. Health information was investigated using DNA methylation data obtained from the blood samples of 1,420 BHPS participants.

The analysis suggests that privately renting a home is associated with accelerated biological aging and that this impact is almost twice that of being out of work versus in paid employment. However, the researchers also found these effects were reversible, even after accounting for potentially influential factors such as sex, nationality, education, diet, cumulative stress and smoking.

On the other hand, there was no difference in biological aging for those living in social housing, which is associated with lower costs and long-term tenure, compared to outright ownership.

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Historical housing circumstances such as repeated housing arrears and exposure to pollution/environmental problems were also associated with faster biological aging.

The paper suggests that housing problems may have a greater impact on biological aging compared to other social factors like unemployment, indicating that health interventions could potentially extend to include improving housing. However, as this is an observational study, it can’t establish cause. Furthermore, there were limitations to DNA methylation data as this was only sourced from White, European respondents.

“Our results suggest that challenging housing circumstances negatively affect health through faster biological aging,” the authors write in the study. “However, biological aging is reversible, highlighting the significant potential for housing policy changes to improve health.”

Reference: Clair A, Baker E, Kumari M. Are housing circumstances associated with faster epigenetic aging? J Epidemiol Community Health. 2023. doi: 10.1136/jech-2023-220523

This article is a rework of a press release issued by the BMJ. Material has been edited for length and content.