Less-educated African American women who report experiencing high levels of racial discrimination may face greater risk of developing chronic diseases, says a new study by UC Berkeley researchers.
The study of 208 middle-aged African American women from the San Francisco Bay Area is the first to examine the links between racial discrimination and allostatic load, a measure of chronic physiologic stress in the body that is a predictor of a variety of chronic diseases. Higher levels of educational attainment may buffer some of the negative health effects of discrimination, the team found.
“Racial discrimination has many faces. It is not being able to hail a cab, getting poor service in stores and restaurants, being treated unfairly at work, being treated unfairly by police and law enforcement and being followed around in stores because of racial stereotypes,” said Amani M. Allen, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health sciences in UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “We found that experiencing racial discrimination repeatedly can create a state of biological imbalance that leaves certain groups of people more susceptible to chronic disease.”
Numerous studies show that African American women have higher levels of allostatic load, a collection of biological factors like high blood pressure and high blood sugar that collectively raise an individual’s risk of developing chronic illness. African American women are also more likely than other racial and gender groups to experience chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.
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While previous research has linked racial discrimination to specific conditions, this study, appearing online this month in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, is the first to examine the association between racial discrimination and allostatic load.
“We know that African American women suffer disproportionately from chronic disease, and we know a lot about what contributes to these diseases—diet, physical activity, access to care and even genetics in some cases,” Allen said. “However, these factors fall short of explaining the disparities faced by African American women. The goal of our study was to examine whether racial discrimination is in itself a type of stressor that may be related to higher levels of allostatic load, thereby increasing risk of chronic illness among this group.”