Epigenetics and the embodiment of race: developmental origins of US racial disparities in cardiovascular health

Am J Hum Biol. 2009 Jan-Feb;21(1):2-15. doi: 10.1002/ajhb.20822.


The relative contribution of genetic and environmental influences to the US black-white disparity in cardiovascular disease (CVD) is hotly debated within the public health, anthropology, and medical communities. In this article, we review evidence for developmental and epigenetic pathways linking early life environments with CVD, and critically evaluate their possible role in the origins of these racial health disparities. African Americans not only suffer from a disproportionate burden of CVD relative to whites, but also have higher rates of the perinatal health disparities now known to be the antecedents of these conditions. There is extensive evidence for a social origin to prematurity and low birth weight in African Americans, reflecting pathways such as the effects of discrimination on maternal stress physiology. In light of the inverse relationship between birth weight and adult CVD, there is now a strong rationale to consider developmental and epigenetic mechanisms as links between early life environmental factors like maternal stress during pregnancy and adult race-based health disparities in diseases like hypertension, diabetes, stroke, and coronary heart disease. The model outlined here builds upon social constructivist perspectives to highlight an important set of mechanisms by which social influences can become embodied, having durable and even transgenerational influences on the most pressing US health disparities. We conclude that environmentally responsive phenotypic plasticity, in combination with the better-studied acute and chronic effects of social-environmental exposures, provides a more parsimonious explanation than genetics for the persistence of CVD disparities between members of socially imposed racial categories.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Birth Weight*
  • Black or African American / genetics*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / epidemiology
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / ethnology*
  • Cardiovascular Diseases / genetics*
  • Epigenesis, Genetic*
  • Gene Expression Regulation, Developmental
  • Healthcare Disparities
  • Humans
  • Models, Genetic
  • Phenotype
  • Risk Factors
  • United States / epidemiology
  • White People / genetics*