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New study shows racism may shorten black Americans' lifespans

The study’s results link stress from increased experiences with racial discrimination to more rapid aging in African Americans.
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In recognition of the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and in solidarity with the family and supporters of Stephon Clark and others killed by police, demonstrators protest and march in the Magnificent Mile shopping district on April 2, 2018 in Chicago.Scott Olson / Getty Images file

African Americans who reported more experiences with racial discrimination are likely to age faster, adding to evidence that racism is not only a “social and moral dilemma” but also a “public health issue,” according to an Auburn University study published last month.

According to the study, encountering racism can lead to higher levels of stress, which in turn causes cells to age more rapidly. The adverse health effects of racism on African Americans are well documented, but the Auburn study focuses on its effects on telomeres, pieces of DNA that protect cells.

The results show a link between increased experiences with racial discrimination and the more rapid shortening of those telomeres, an indication of cell aging.

“Our results point to how racial discrimination, a particular type of social toxin that disproportionately impacts African Americans, becomes embedded at the cellular level,” David Chae, director of Auburn's Society, Health and Racial Equity Lab, who led the research team, said in a statement.

Nearly 400 African Americans from Birmingham, Alabama; Chicago; Minneapolis; and Oakland, California, participated in the study, which began in 2000 and was published in the journal Health Psychology. At the time the study began, they were 40 years old on average.

Sierra Carter, a psychology professor at Georgia State University and the leader of another study on racism and aging published in September, said the Auburn study’s results are in line with a growing body of research on the role racism plays in lowering life expectancy for African Americans. She said that over time, experiences with racism and even chronic worrying about it can cause significant “wear and tear” by increasing one’s allostatic load, the lifelong buildup of stress, which accelerates aging and puts African Americans at greater risk for chronic illnesses.

“If we start thinking about racial discrimination as a chronic social stimuli, it fits in with all our models, both medical models and psychological models, of what happens when your body is never able to reach a balanced state,” she said. “Your body is trying to find that balance, that homeostasis, but it isn’t able to get there because stressor continues to happen.”

Carter’s study looked at how the stress of racism can lead to accelerated aging in African American children, while the Auburn study focused on middle-age adults. But the results, Carter said, point to the same conclusion: Racism’s effects on the mind and body warrant further exploration.

According to the Auburn study, participants experienced racial discrimination “on the street or in public” more than anywhere else. The two next most common settings were in the office or while trying to get hired.

Carter said that one practical response to the growing body of research on racism, aging and chronic illness would be for health services institutions to recognize that racial sensitivity is an essential part of ensuring healthy outcomes for a diverse patient pool.

“Just like we have things like trauma-informed care, I believe we need to have racism-informed care,” she said.

For Chae, the Auburn study results carry a lesson: Racism is alive and well, and its harm goes beyond the social, economic and political realms.

“Racism continues to be a pressing social and moral dilemma, as well as a public health issue,” he wrote.

Carter agreed and added that Americans’ inability to recognize behavior or treatment that is racist only contributes to those public health issues. Her prescription: open and honest conversations about race.

“Our society has a long history of difficulty addressing its past and present racist practices,” she said. “What prevents things from happening is people have these fears of what doing something racist means about them personally, when really a conversation needs to be had. People are dying.”