Racism-Related Stress Is Linked to Premature Aging and Chronic Disease
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.
May 28, 2021
This article is an excerpt from issue 41 of Today’s Research on Aging.
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.1
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.2 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.
Brown and Hargrove argue that many traditional research tools developed for the white population do not capture the stressors “most salient for older Black men’s health.” Black men’s disproportionately high risk of contact with the criminal justice system likely shapes their health, they suggest. Also, Black men often experience distress associated with trying to provide economically for their families despite “constrained economic opportunities and racial discrimination in many areas of life.”
Ryon J. Cobb and colleagues focus on allostatic load—the wear and tear on the body caused by chronic stress.3 High allostatic load signals physical dysregulation and premature aging, which contribute to chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Drawing on a locally representative sample of around 1,200 Black and white adults in the Nashville Stress and Health Study, the researchers find Black adults have significantly higher allostatic loads.
Health disparities related to skin tone also underscore the insidious nature of racism. Cobb and colleagues show that levels of allostatic load vary by Black adults’ skin tone, even after accounting for social and economic differences. The health disparities are largest between white and darker-skinned Black adults and smallest between white and lighter-skinned Black adults.
Because the interviewers identified participants’ skin tone for this study, the findings can “more closely capture the degree to which individuals’ experiences within racialized social interactions vary by how they are racially categorized based on color by others,” the researchers write. The study uncovers the way racism stigmatizes and disadvantages those with the darkest skin the most.
- April D. Thames et al., “Experienced Discrimination and Racial Differences in Leukocyte Gene Expression,” Psychoneuroendocrinology 106, no. 1 (2019): 277-83, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.04.016.
- Tyson H. Brown and Taylor W. Hargrove, “Psychosocial Mechanisms Underlying Older Black Men’s Health,” The Journals of Gerontology: Series B, Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences 73, no. 2 (2018): 188-97, https://doi.org/10.1093/geronb/gbx091.
- Ryon J. Cobb et al., “Self-Identified Race, Socially Assigned Skin Tone, and Adult Physiological Dysregulation: Assessing Multiple Dimensions of ‘Race’ in Health Disparities Research,” SSM—Population Health 2 (2016): 595-602, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssmph.2016.06.007.