Experiencing racism damages a person’s health by triggering the release of stress hormones and a chain of biological events that cause premature aging, which in turn increase the risk of chronic disease.
Paola Scommegna and Mark Mather of the Population Reference Bureau, discuss findings from April D. Thames, Tyson H. Brown (Duke), Taylor W. Hargrove (N. Carolina), Ryon J. Cobb, that racism-related stress is linked to premature aging and chronic disease.
A growing body of research suggests that experiencing racism damages a person’s health by triggering the release of stress hormones and a chain of biological events that cause premature aging, thereby increasing the risk of chronic disease.
April D. Thames and colleagues focus on Black and white adults with similar socioeconomic backgrounds and stress levels, examining their experiences of racial discrimination and blood markers for stress and inflammation.
Chronic inflammation can cause premature aging and organ damage, raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure. Genes that promote chronic inflammation—activated by the body’s fight-or-flight stress response—are expressed more often in Black adults than in white adults, particularly Black adults who perceive greater levels of racial discrimination.
Thames and colleagues find that exposure to racism and discrimination could potentially account for more than 50% of the difference in the activity of inflammation-triggering genes between Black and white adults. The researchers suggest that racial discrimination should be perceived as a health risk factor on par with smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, and substance abuse.
Black men may be especially vulnerable to racism-related stressors. “Black men have some of the worst health profiles and shortest life expectancies of all race-gender groups in the United States,” write Tyson H. Brown and Taylor W. Hargrove. Using Health and Retirement Study data, they examine participants’ perceptions of daily challenges associated with unfair treatment and of significant discrimination related to work, housing, lending, and the criminal justice and health care systems.
This article is an excerpt from issue 41 of Today’s Research on Aging.