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Examining the Link Between Racism and Health

New research suggests that discrimination takes a physical toll.

CC0 Public Domain
Source: CC0 Public Domain

When the mind senses a potentially harmful situation, it tells the body to prepare by increasing its heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. This response helped earlier humans outrun or fight predators and enemies.

Today’s stressful situations, more likely a challenging interaction at work or a misbehaving child, result in the same physical reactions even though we are less likely to experience physical danger. The problem is, when this stress response is repeated frequently over time, evidence shows it leads to health problems including depression, anxiety, insomnia, heart disease, skin rashes, and gastrointestinal problems—just to name a few.

Now a growing body of evidence demonstrates that racial discrimination triggers this stress response. As a result, racial minorities may experience more health problems compared to others. One review of 121 studies published in 2013 found that youth between the ages of 12 and 18 who experienced discrimination were significantly more likely to experience mental health problems such as depression and anxiety compared to those who did not experience discrimination. Another review of 66 studies found that black American adults who perceived they were subjected to racism were more likely to experience mental health problems and more likely to report a lower quality of life.

A lead researcher in the field is Anthony Ong, a professor of human development in Cornell University’s College of Human Ecology. Ong explains that experiencing discrimination or mistreatment regularly can affect health through eroding a person’s self-esteem and by robbing marginalized individuals of opportunities.

“Although increasing evidence suggests that chronic exposure to unfair treatment or day-to-day discrimination increases the risk for poor health, the overall dearth of data on biological mechanisms indicate it’s important to continue studying this topic,” Ong said.

He published a study last year of more than 200 African-American adults followed over the period of a decade. Participants filled out questionnaires about everyday mistreatment such as being called names, insulted, threatened, or harassed. They also answered questions about larger occurrences of unfair treatment, such as being discouraged from continuing their education, not receiving a loan or being hassled by the police.

Participants also underwent blood tests to identify 22 biomarkers of diseases including heart disease, diabetes, nerve problems and inflammation.

Ultimately, participants who reported experiencing more discrimination were in poorer health. Ong said that’s because experiencing discrimination on a regular basis, even small instances of daily mistreatment, lead to “wear-and-tear” on the body over time.

“Our findings suggest that coping with chronic experiences of day-to-day mistreatment and discrimination can elicit a cascade of response that over time ‘weather’ or damage the physiological systems that regulate the body’s stress response,” he said.

Ong published a second study earlier this year of 152 Asian-American college students, who kept a diary of their daily events, moods and physical health for two weeks. The study found that when participants experienced mistreatment, what Ong calls “daily microaggressions," they reported poorer sleep quality and shorter sleep duration the following day. Participants who experienced reported more “stigma consciousness”—that is, they believed discrimination influenced their daily interactions with others—were more likely to experience poor sleep quality on nights after they reported experiencing mistreatment.

“Being constantly vigilant to race-related threats in the environment may keep you from getting a good night’s sleep,” Ong explained.

The broad take-home message here is that racial discrimination can lead to health problems that detract from minorities’ quality-of-life over the course of a year or even a lifetime.

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