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Racial Discrimination in Teen Years Could Create Health Problems

Image: People commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington

Racial discrimination may be a health problem, too, research suggests. MLADEN ANTONOV / Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Racial discrimination isn't just a civil rights issue — it can also affect teenagers' health, a new study suggests.

Adolescents who experienced frequent racial discrimination without emotional support from parents and peers had higher levels of blood pressure, a higher body mass index, and higher levels of stress-related hormones at age 20, placing them at greater risk for chronic disease as they get older.

While other studies have looked at perceived racial discrimination and health among adults, this study, published Monday in the journal Child Development, is the first of its type to track the effects in youth. The good news: Teens who did receive emotional support didn't show the biological effects of racial discrimination.

Researchers wanted to look at the relationship between racial discrimination and what scientists call allostatic load, basically the "wear and tear" on the body over time caused by frequent and repeated stressors. Frequent activation of the body's stress response causes a cascade of problems including high blood pressure, cardiac disease, stroke and increases in the body's inflammatory response. The researchers also wanted to determine whether parental and peer support would help mediate that stress, leading to potentially better health outcomes.

The study involved 331 African Americans, all of whom lived in the rural South, who were asked to rate the frequency of perceived discrimination at ages 16, 17 and 18. These discriminatory events included racially based slurs and insults, disrespectful treatment from community members, physical threats, and false accusations from business employees or law enforcement officials.

"When a person's sense of human dignity is violated, there are physiological consequences."

When the adolescents turned 18, the youths were asked to assess their peer emotional support during these years. Caregivers, too, were surveyed regarding the emotional support they provided, with questions including "If my child talks to me I have suggestions about how to handle problems," and "If my child needs help with school or work, she/he can ask me about it."

Blood pressure, body mass and stress-related hormones were assessed when youths turned 20. The researchers controlled for variables including low economic status, depression, or unhealthy behaviors such as drug use, for example, all of which can affect health.

Although many African Americans, as well as other minorities, experience discrimination as a stressor, only a small percentage show increases in the biological havoc that stress can cause.

"People ask why is that, and one reason we've shown is that it's due to emotional support, which is important at all times in life, but especially during adolescence,' says lead investigator Gene Brody, Regents Professor and Director of the Center for Family Research at University of Georgia. "These kinds of relationships can be a protective barrier from stress-changing biology."

In recent years, racial discrimination as a stressor affecting biology has been the subject of numerous studies, mostly involving adults, says David Williams, a professor of public health at the Harvard School of Public Health. Other research has shown that racial discrimination and resulting health problems are a global phenomenon.

"It is not just an African-American problem, it is a universal problem, affecting the health of disadvantaged populations across the world," adds Williams, the developer of "The Everyday Discrimination Scale," which is widely used to assess perceived discrimination. "When a person's sense of human dignity is violated, there are physiological consequences."

Although the study does have some limitations since researchers still must determine the mechanism by which parental or peer involvement actually worked in reducing the stress response, it challenges researchers to explain "the how" of their findings, says Megan Gunnar, Regents Professor and Distinguished McKnight University Professor, Institute of Child Development, University of Minnesota.

"While we are working out the how this comes about in the body, this study provides us with rich targets for increasing resilience in youth and, as if we needed them, more arguments for working to reduce racism and discrimination in our society."

For caregivers the message is simple. "Just sitting with them, gauging how they are doing is not race specific, it is important across all races, and can have a powerful effect in buffering the effects of discrimination," says Brody.