Privately renting a home in the UK was linked to faster biological ageing than either being a homeowner or living in social housing, a study found.
Whereas chronological age is your actual age, the number of years you have been alive, biological age refers to how old your cells and tissues are based on physiological evidence. Previous studies had suggested this can be negatively affected by a number of factors that included stress, sleeping issues, stigma, and physical environment — including cold, mould, injury hazards, and over-crowding — but how these might exert their effects was not entirely clear.
Renting Doubles Biological Ageing Impact
For the new study, researchers from the University of Essex and the University of Adelaide, Australia, used data from the representative UK Household Longitudinal Study and 1420 survey responses from the British Household Panel Survey (BHPS). Additional health information was subsequently collected from the BHPS participants, including blood samples taken for DNA methylation analysis.
The researchers investigated factors such as length of tenancy, building type, Government financial support available to renters, availability of central heating, housing costs, payment arrears, overcrowding, and expectations around moving.
When analysing all the data, they took into account potentially influential factors - sex, nationality, education level, socioeconomic status, diet, cumulative stress, financial hardship, urban environments, weight (BMI), and smoking. Because the pace of biological ageing quickens in tandem with chronological ageing, this was also factored in.
The study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, found that the negative impact on biological ageing of renting versus outright ownership was almost double that of being out of work rather than being employed. It was also 50% greater than having been a former smoker as opposed to never having smoked.
The researchers also uncovered that living in social housing, with its lower cost and greater security of tenure, was no different from mortgage-free house ownership with regards its association with biological ageing, once additional housing variables had been included.
They also found that when h istorical housing circumstances were taken into account — such as regularly falling into rent arrears or living in a home affected by pollution — an association with quicker biological ageing was also apparent.
The researchers highlighted that the observational nature of their study meant it was unable to establish cause, and acknowledged several limitations to their findings, including the lack of contemporary measures for determining housing quality, and that DNA methylation-derived measures of ageing came only from White, European respondents.
Biological Age Reversible
The researchers said the "stress-induced acceleration of epigenetic ageing may contribute to the long known link between psychological stress and disease". This showed how housing circumstances can "get under the skin with real and significant consequences for health".
However, the researchers emphasised that the effects on biological age could be reversed.
They concluded: "Our results suggest that challenging housing circumstances negatively affect health through faster biological ageing. However, biological ageing is reversible, highlighting the significant potential for housing policy changes to improve health.
"What it means to be a private renter is not set in stone but dependent on policy decisions, which to date have prioritised owners and investors over renters," they added.
"Policies to reduce the stress and uncertainty associated with private renting, such as ending no-fault evictions, limiting rent rises, and improving conditions, some of which have happened in parts of the UK since these data were collected, may go some way to reducing the negative impacts of private renting," the team suggested.