Accounting for Life-Course Exposures in Epigenetic Biomarker Association Studies: Early Life Socioeconomic Position, Candidate Gene DNA Methylation, and Adult Cardiometabolic Risk

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Recent studies suggest that epigenetic programming may mediate the relationship between early life environment, including parental socioeconomic position, and adult cardiometabolic health. However, interpreting associations between early environment and adult DNA methylation may be difficult because of time-dependent confounding by life-course exposures. Among 613 adult women (mean age = 32 years) of the Jerusalem Perinatal Study Family Follow-up (2007–2009), we investigated associations between early life socioeconomic position (paternal occupation and parental education) and mean adult DNA methylation at 5 frequently studied cardiometabolic and stress-response genes (ABCA1, INS-IGF2, LEP, HSD11B2, and NR3C1). We used multivariable linear regression and marginal structural models to estimate associations under 2 causal structures for life-course exposures and timing of methylation measurement. We also examined whether methylation was associated with adult cardiometabolic phenotype. Higher maternal education was consistently associated with higher HSD11B2 methylation (e.g., 0.5%-point higher in 9–12 years vs. ≤8 years, 95% confidence interval: 0.1, 0.8). Higher HSD11B2 methylation was also associated with lower adult weight and total and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol. We found that associations with early life socioeconomic position measures were insensitive to different causal assumption; however, exploratory analysis did not find evidence for a mediating role of methylation in socioeconomic position-cardiometabolic risk associations.

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