How Racism Affects The Health of African Americans
Dr. Bill Releford Takes A Closer Look At Health Inequalities
Over recent years there has been a remarkable increase in scientific research looking at the various ways racism adversely affects health. This research interest has, in part, been driven by compelling evidence indicating that socio-economic factors alone don’t account for ethnic/racial inequalities in health.
Dr. Bill J. Releford, D.P.M.
For years racism has been considered among the fundamental causes of adverse health for racial minorities. In a recent study published in April 2019 in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, scientists have found racism has a toxic effect on the health of African Americans.
A team of scientists from the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles revealed that racist experiences might increase inflammation in African Americans, exposing them to a higher risk of developing chronic illness.
“We know that discrimination is linked to some health outcomes, but we were not sure how exactly it adversely affected health,” said Dr. Aprill Thames, a psychology and psychiatry associate professor at the University of Southern California’s College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences. Thames and her team looked at racism as a chronic stressor, and the results indicated that racial discrimination triggers inflammatory responses among African American individuals at the cellular level.
According to research, the survival of any living thing depends upon its ability to respond to stress, injuries, and infections. These threats often trigger immune system responses to fight off pathogens and repair any damaged tissues. Inflammation is usually a sign that the genes responsible for an organism’s defense mechanism are working as they should counter any threats or repair damaged tissue.
Too Much of a Good Thing
So, in essence, inflammation often serves to protect organisms from health threats. However, if an organism feels under a particular threat for a long time, its health may suffer significantly from chronic inflammation. UCLA’s Steve Cole, who co-authored the research, said if the defense mechanism genes remain active for extended periods, they can promote neurodegenerative diseases, metastatic cancer, and heart attacks. In previous research, Cole and his team revealed that inflammatory responses are exceedingly higher among individuals in socially-marginalized and isolated groups.
“We have seen this before in PTSD, chronic loneliness, poverty, and various other types of adversity,” Cole says. “Until now, however, no one looked at these effects of discrimination, “
Link of Inflammation to Racism
In the new study, Thames and her team focused on 71 participants, two-thirds of whom were African Americans. All other subjects were white. Thirty-eight (38) of the subjects were positive for HIV, giving the researchers an opportunity to study the health effects of racial discrimination independently from the health effects of the disease. The team extracted RNA (ribonucleic acid) from the subjects’ cells and measured the molecules which trigger inflammation, and those that are involved in anti-viral responses.
Findings show that African Americans had higher levels of inflammatory molecules than the other participants. The results also revealed that racial discrimination may account for up to 50 percent of higher inflammation among African American individuals. This includes those living with HIV.
Study Ruled Out Other Stressors
To rule out other stressors, the team ensured that all the subjects had similar socio-economic backgrounds accounting for financial stressors and eliminating poverty as a possible factor for the chronic inflammation among the participants. It means, therefore, that racism is an entirely different kind of chronic stressor,
Thames explains. “People navigate poverty every day, and they are aware that it’s happening. They may even address financial stressors through, say, job changes, financial management, and changes in earnings. However, with racial discrimination, you do not always realize that it is happening. One’s lifestyle or decisions can lower the adverse effects of some stressors.
“Racial discrimination, however, is a chronic stressor over which many people have no control. You cannot change the color of your skin,” Thames stresses.
The limitation of this latest study, as acknowledged by Thames, is that the sample was small. She nevertheless notes that the findings open the stage for repeat studies to determine and confirm the adverse inflammatory health effects of racism on African Americans.
It is important to note that these research results are in line with a 1996 study, which also found that racism had negative effects on the mental and physical health of African American individuals.
Dr. Bill J. Releford, D.P.M., is founder of The Black Barbershop Health Outreach Program and serves as Medical Director of The Releford Foot and Ankle Institute. www.relefordinstitute.com