Biomarkers, Genetics & epigenetics

Understanding the interaction between people's social and economic circumstances and their health across the lifespan. 

Understanding Society brings together the biology and the social science.  It allows us to more precisely measure health and illness, whether focussing on specific conditions, undiagnosed illness, the effectiveness of treatment, or the risk factors for ill health.

Professor Meena Kumari

Champion for Biomarkers, Genetics & Epigenetics

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Professor Meena Kumari

What data do Understanding Society collect?

Understanding Society collects information about participants’ social and economic circumstances, attitudes and beliefs and it also gathers information about their health. From Wave 1 onwards participants were asked a number of questions about their general health. In Wave 2 and Wave 3 adult participants received a follow-up health assessment visit from a registered nurse.

A range of bio-medical measures were collected from around 20000 adults, which included blood pressure, weight, height, waist measurement, body fat, grip strength and lung function. Blood samples were also taken at these visits and frozen for future research. A number of biomarkers have now been extracted from the blood which measure major illnesses in the UK as well as being markers of key physiological systems.  A genome wide scan has been conducted on DNA samples from approximately 10000 people, which enables us to examine gene-environment interactions for health and social phenomena. Methylation profiling has been conducted on DNA samples from approximately 1200 individuals from the British Household Panel Survey component of Understanding Society. This is particular important to advance understanding of how people’s social, economic and physical environments over their life time influence their biological processes by altering how their genes work.

The health data can be linked to the main survey allowing for a rich set of information on a range of topics. 

What health condition questions are asked in the main survey? 

In Wave 1 of Understanding Society participants were asked: 'Has a doctor or other health professional ever told you that you have any of these conditions?'. Seventeen conditions were listed: asthma, arthritis, congestive heart failure, coronary heart disease, angina, heart attack, stroke, emphysema, hyperthyroidsim, hypothyroidism, chronic bronchitis, any kind of liver condition, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, high blood pressure and clinical depression. In Wave 7 multiple sclerosis and HIV were added to the list of conditions. The full list of variables relating to health conditions can be found here

Understanding Society also asks participants whether they have visited a hospital or out patient clinic in the last twelve months, and about their health behaviour; whether they take part in sports, the amount of walking they do and how often they eat fruit and vegetables. 

Access the health data

End User Licence survey data can be downloaded directly from the UK Data Service, but researchers who want to access genetic and epigenetic data need to apply seperately for access. Find out how to apply and who to contact.  

Receive updates from Understanding Society on biomarkers, genetics and epigenetics

We have a mailing list specifically for researchers who are interested in biomarkers, genetics and epigenetics. If you would like to receive email updates on the latest research, events and news you can sign up here.

Biomarker User Guide and Glossary

This guide outlines the biomarkers currently available and some of the factors that require consideration in their analysis. 

Inequality under the skin

Read our comic strip on research by Dr Apostolos Davillas which looks at socio-economic inequalities and biomarkers.

biomarkers comic


What is biosocial research?

Professor Michaela Benzeval introduces biosocial research.


The Guardian Science Weekly podcast

Meena Kumari discusses how socioeconomic position affects health.

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Latest Case Study


Contact our User Support Forum if you need help using the data or have a question for the Study team

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