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NIH Record  
Vol. LXII, No. 13
  June 25, 2010
NHLBI Staffer Puts Best Foot Forward
Plain Language Event Pays Tribute to Communicators
‘COPD Shuttle’ Offers Virtual Tour
ORWH Focuses on Breast Cancer
NIAID Invention Gaining Acceptance in Malaria-Endemic Countries
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Sins of the Grandfather?
STEP Forum Explores Disease Potential Handed Down From Ancestors
  Dr. Trevor Archer
  Dr. Trevor Archer

Did your ancestors make you sick? Or, more specifically, did something happen to Grammy before she was born that scarred you—health wise—for life? That’s what the science of epigenetics aims to explain. A recent Staff Training in Extramural Programs (STEP) forum, “Blast from the Past: Early Influences on Long-Term Health,” aimed to shed more light on the emerging field and its possible implications in health and society.

So we know certain characteristics—eye color, for instance—are passed down to us through our genes. “She gets that from my dad,” a proud mom might suggest of her daughter’s red hair. Epigenetics, however, seeks to find out what else besides your DNA may cause you to end up with some traits, particularly those abnormalities that can lead to disease.

Racial Disparities in Suicide Rates May Be Due to Culture Rather Than Genes

Historically, African Americans have dealt with many social stressors such as poverty, discrimination and high unemployment rates. So why do African Americans have lower suicide rates than whites, Asian Americans and Native Americans?

Dr. Sean Joe, a University of Michigan School of Social Work researcher of suicidal behavior among African Americans, addressed this question on May 4 at the NIMH lecture “Suicide Research Among Black Americans: Uncovering the Secrets of this Racial Advantage.” He pointed out that risk factors for suicide are not simply tied to money and success as many people might think. Football player Deion Sanders, for example, attempted suicide while at the height of success in his career.

Many clues from research on suicide risk factors instead point to social factors as being more important than wealth, success or psychiatric illness in explaining this racial disparity. The fact that African Americans in the Midwest have significantly higher suicide risk than those in the South hints at the importance of social factors. Further supporting this view are statistics on the lifetime risk of suicide among African Americans of various age groups. The risk for attempting suicide among African Americans born after 1975 is 9 times higher than that for older African Americans.