Salivary Epigenetic Measures of Body Mass Index and Social Determinants of Health Across Childhood and Adolescence

Laurel Raffington, Lisa Schneper, Travis Mallard, Jonah Fisher, Liza Vinnik, Kelseanna Hollis-Hansen, Daniel A. Notterman, Elliot M. Tucker-Drob, Colter Mitchell, K. Paige Harden

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Importance: Children who are socioeconomically disadvantaged are at increased risk for high body mass index (BMI) and multiple diseases in adulthood. The developmental origins of health and disease hypothesis proposes that early life conditions affect later-life health in a manner that is only partially modifiable by later-life experiences. Objective: To examine whether epigenetic measures of BMI developed in adults are valid biomarkers of childhood BMI and if they are sensitive to early life social determinants of health. Design, Setting, and Participants: This population-based study of over 3200 children and adolescents aged 8 to 18 years included data from 2 demographically diverse US pediatric cohort studies that combine longitudinal and twin study designs. Analyses were conducted from 2021 to 2022. Exposures: Socioeconomic status, marginalized groups. Main Outcome and Measure: Salivary epigenetic BMI, BMI. Analyses were conducted to validate the use of saliva epigenetic BMI as a potential biomarker of child BMI and to examine associations between epigenetic BMI and social determinants of health. Results: Salivary epigenetic BMI was calculated from 2 cohorts: (1) 1183 individuals aged 8 to 18 years (609 female [51%]; mean age, 13.4 years) from the Texas Twin Project and (2) 2020 children (1011 female [50%]) measured at 9 years of age and 15 years of age from the Future of Families and Child Well-Being Study. Salivary epigenetic BMI was associated with children's BMI (r = 0.36; 95% CI, 0.31-0.40 to r = 0.50; 95% CI, 0.42-0.59). Longitudinal analysis found that epigenetic BMI was highly stable across adolescence but remained both a leading and lagging indicator of BMI change. Twin analyses showed that epigenetic BMI captured differences in BMI between monozygotic twins. Moreover, children from more disadvantaged socioeconomic status (b = -0.13 to -0.15 across samples) and marginalized racial and ethnic groups (b = 0.08-0.34 across samples) had higher epigenetic BMI, even when controlling for concurrent BMI, pubertal development, and tobacco exposure. Socioeconomic status at birth relative to concurrent socioeconomic status best predicted epigenetic BMI in childhood and adolescence (b = -0.15; 95% CI, -0.20 to -0.09). Conclusion and Relevance: This study demonstrated that epigenetic measures of BMI calculated from pediatric saliva samples were valid biomarkers of childhood BMI and may be associated with early-life social inequalities. The findings are in line with the hypothesis that early-life conditions are especially important factors in epigenetic regulation of later-life health. Research showing that health later in life is linked to early-life conditions has important implications for the development of early-life interventions that could significantly extend healthy life span..

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1047-1054
Number of pages8
JournalJAMA Pediatrics
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health

Cite this