Epigenetic Epidemiology: The Rebirth of Soft Inheritance
Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, constitute the main cause of death worldwide. Eighty percent of these deaths occur in low- and middle-income countries, especially as these countries undergo socio-economic improvement following reductions in the burden of infectious disease. The World Health Organization predicts a substantial increase in the incidence of NCDs over the next decade globally. NCDs are generally preventable, but current approaches are clearly inadequate. New initiatives are needed to implement such prevention, and there needs to be greater recognition that early-life interventions are likely to be the most efficacious.Devising appropriate prevention strategies necessitates an understanding of how the developmental environment influences risk. Progress in this field has been slow due to an excessive emphasis on fixed genomic variations (hard inheritance) as the major determinants of disease susceptibility.However, new evidence demonstrates the much greater importance of early-life developmental factors, involving epigenetic processes and ‘soft’ inheritance in modulating an individual’s vulnerability to NCD. This also offers opportunities for novel epigenetic biomarkers of risk or interventions targeting epigenetic pathways to be devised for use in early life. This may pave the way to much more effective, customised interventions to promote health across the life course.