Thomas McDade

Carlos Montezuma Professor of Anthropology | Director of Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research


Thom McDade is a biological anthropologist who conducts research on how experience becomes biology.  In other words, how do social, economic, and cultural contexts shape human biology and health over the life course?  Much of this work focuses on the long-term effects of early environments, and the integration of biological measures into population-based, social science research. He is director of the Laboratory for Human Biology Research, and of Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health.

McDade's work has appeared in a wide range of journals, including Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings of the Royal Society, New England Journal of Medicine, Social Science and Medicine, American Journal of Public Health, Demography, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, American Journal of Human Biology, Medical Anthropology, and Psychosomatic Medicine. In 2002, he received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the nation's highest honor for scientists early in their career. PECASE awardees are drawn from those who have already received prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grants from the National Science Foundation.

Current Research

Social Epigenetics and the Embodiment of Early Environments.  Epigenetic processes are responsive to experiences during development and play important roles in regulating gene expression. A focus on epigenetics in community-based studies encourages us to reconceptualize the human genome as a dynamic substrate that incorporates information from the environment to alter its structure and function—an approach that moves beyond simplistic “nature vs. nurture” and “DNA as destiny” metaphors. Several studies are investigating epigenetic signatures of socioeconomic adversity early in life,  epigenetic modifications to inflammatory genes as a mechanism linking early environments with inflammation in adulthood, and the social and ecological factors that predict gene expression during pregnancy.  

Pathways Linking Social Disparities, Inflammation, and Health Within and Across Generations. Inflammation is an important part of normal immune function, but excessive or chronic activation of inflammation contributes to adverse birth outcomes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and other chronic degenerative diseases. McDade is conducting research in the United States and the Philippines that investigates the social and developmental factors that shape the regulation of inflammation. Recent papers have documented significant impacts of stress, breastfeeding duration, birth weight, and microbial exposures in infancy on inflammation in adulthood. A new project is focusing on inflammation during pregnancy, investigating epigenetic modifications to inflammatory genes as a mechanism accounting for the long-term effects of early life environments. 

Social Influences on Biomarkers of Stress in Early Adulthood. McDade has helped integrate biomarker data collection into Wave IV of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), and with colleagues in IPR/C2S, McDade is investigating social status, neighborhood factors, and social relationships as sources of stress that affect mental and physical health in young adults in the U.S. This is the largest ever study of stress to include objective indicators of physiological function and health (n~15,000), and findings from this research will greatly advance our understanding of how social contexts "get under the skin" to affect health in young adults.  

Acculturation, Health, and the Ecology of Immune Function in South America. With colleagues in anthropology, McDade is investigating the impact of social, economic, and cultural transitions on health in remote populations in Bolivia and Ecuador. These projects are addressing the local impact of globalization and exploring how ecological factors shape the development and function of the human immune system.

Biomarkers for Population-Based Health Research. The application of minimally invasive, "field-friendly" methods for measuring physiology is an important part of McDade's effort to conduct integrative population-based research on health. He has developed methods for assaying biomarkers in a drop of blood collected from a simple finger prick, and he consults on the implementation of these methods into a number of large, nationally representative health surveys, including the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, Health and Retirement Study, and WHO Study on Global Ageing and Adult Health.

Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health. Social and cultural contexts are critical determinants of human development and health, but we know very little about the processes or pathways through which they act. Along with colleagues at IPR, McDade has helped establish C2S as a new center at Northwestern to serve as catalyst for innovative, multidisciplinary approaches to understanding health disparities.

Selected Publications

McDade, T., C. Ryan, M. Jones, J. MacIsaac, A. Morin, J. Meyer, J. Borja, G. Miller, M. Kobor, and C. Kuzawa. 2017.  Social and physical environments early in development predict DNA methylation of inflammatory genes in young adulthoodProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114(29): 7611–16.

McDade, T., K. Ross, R. Fried, J. Arevalo, J. Ma, G. Miller, and S. Cole. Genome-wide profiling of RNA from dried blood spots: Convergence with bioinformatic results derived from whole venous blood and peripheral blood mononuclear cellsBiodemography and Social Biology 62(2): 182–97.

McDade, T., J. Borja, F. Largado, L. Adair, and C. Kuzawa. 2016. Adiposity and chronic inflammation in young women predict inflammation during normal pregnancy in the PhilippinesJournal of Nutrition 146:353-7.

McDade, T., M. Metzger, L. Chyu,  G. Duncan, C. Garfield, and E. Adam. 2014. Long-term effects of birth weight and breastfeeding duration on inflammation in early adulthood. Proceedings of the Royal Society Series B 281(1784), 20133116.

McDade, T., M. Hoke, J. Borja, L. Adair, and C. Kuzawa. 2013. Do environments in infancy moderate the association between stress and inflammation in adulthood? Initial evidence from a birth cohort in the Philippines. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity 31:23–30.

Sweet, E., A. Nandi, E. Adam, and T. McDade. 2013. The high price of debt: Household financial debt and its impact on mental and physical health. Social Science & Medicine (early view).

McDade, T. 2012. Early environments and the ecology of inflammation. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 17281–88.

McDade, T., P. Tallman, F. Madimenos, M. Liebert, T. Cepon,, L. Sugiyama, and J.J. Snodgrass. 2012. Analysis of variability of high sensitivity C-reactive protein in lowland Ecuador reveals no evidence of chronic low-grade inflammation. American Journal of Human Biology 24(5): 675–81. 

Hoyt, L. T., T. McDade, L. Chyu, G. Duncan, L. Doane, P.L. Chase-Lansdale, and E. K. Adam. 2012. Positive youth, healthy adults: Does positive well-being in adolescence predict better health in young adulthood? Journal of Adolescent Health 50(1): 66–73.

Ludwig, J., L. Sanbonmatsu, L. Gennetian, E. K. Adam, G. Duncan, et al. 2011. Neighborhoods, obesity, and diabetes—A randomized social experiment. New England Journal of Medicine 365(16): 1509–19.

McDade, T., L. Chyu, G. Duncan, L. Hoyt, L. Doane, and E. Adam. 2011. Adolescents’ expectations for the future predict health behaviors in early adulthood. Social Science & Medicine 73(3): 391–98.

McDade, T., S. Lindau, and K. Wroblewski. 2011. Predictors of C-reactive protein in the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project. Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 66:129–36.

McDade, T., J. Rutherford, L. Adair, and C. Kuzawa. 2010. Early origins of inflammation: Microbial exposures in infancy predict lower levels of C-reactive protein in adulthood. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 277: 1129–37.

McDade, T., S. Williams, and J. J. Snodgrass. 2007. What a drop can do: Dried blood spots as a minimally-invasive method for integrating biomarkers into population-based research. Demography 44: 899–925.