November 20 (IPS) – I am part of a research team that has followed more than 800 Black American families for nearly 25 years. We found that people who reported high levels of racial discrimination as young teenagers had significantly higher levels of depression in their 20s than those who hadn’t. This increased depression, in turn, showed up in their blood samples, indicating accelerated aging at the cellular level.
Our research is not the first to show that black Americans lead sicker lives and die younger than other racial or ethnic groups. The experience of constant and accumulating stress from racism throughout a person’s life can wear down the body – literally “get under the skin” to harm health.
These results show how stress from racism, especially at a young age, can affect the mental and physical health inequalities among black Americans.
Why it matters
As the news of Black American women, men, and children killed because of racial injustice continues, our research into the effects of racism continues to have a significant impact.
COVID-19 has been classified as a “stress pandemic” for black population groups that are disproportionately affected due to factors such as poverty, unemployment and lack of access to health care.
In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that racism has a profound impact on the health of children, adolescents, emerging adults, and their families. Our results support this conclusion – and show that society really needs to think about the lifelong impact racism can have on a black child’s ability to thrive in the United States.
How we do the work
The Family and Community Health Study, conducted at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia in 1996, examines how stress, neighborhood characteristics, and other factors affect black American parents and their children throughout their lives. Participants were recruited from rural, suburban, and urban communities. Sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, this study is the largest study of African American families in the United States, with 800 families participating.
Researchers collected data every two to three years – including self-reported questionnaires on experiences with racial discrimination and depressive symptoms. In 2015, the team also began collecting blood samples to assess participants’ risks for heart disease and diabetes, and to test biomarkers that predict the early onset of these diseases.
We used a technique that looked at how old a person is on a cellular level compared to their chronological age. We found that some young people were older at the cellular level than would have been expected based on their chronological age. Racial discrimination was responsible for much of these differences, suggesting that such experiences accelerated aging.
Our study shows the importance of thinking about how mental and physical health problems are related.
One of the next steps in our work is to focus more on the accelerated aging process. We will also look at resilience and early life interventions that could potentially offset and prevent the health decline in black Americans.
Due to COVID-19, the next scheduled blood draw has been delayed until at least spring 2021. The original children from this study will be in their mid to late 30s and may suffer from chronic illness at that age in part to accelerate aging.
As research continues, my colleagues and I hope to find ways to disrupt the harmful effects of racism so that black lives can play a role and flourish.
Sierra Carter, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Georgia State University
This article is republished by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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