Body’s Response to Racial Discrimination Could Explain Racial Health, Mortality Gap, Researchers Say
Researchers studying the causes of racial disparities are "increasingly interested in the theory ... that racial discrimination can result in unremitting stress" and cause an increased risk of disease and premature death among minorities, particularly black men, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Black men in the U.S. have an increased risk for "just about every health problem known," including most types of cancer, hypertension and diabetes. Cardiovascular disease is considered to be a "major culprit in the black white mortality gap," according to the Times. Socioeconomic factors -- such as poverty, lack of access to care and healthy foods, lifestyle and income -- are thought to partly explain racial health disparities and minorities' shorter life expectancy.
A more recent report -- led by Vickie Mays, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities, and published in the 2007 Annual Review of Psychology -- looks to explain the racial health gap by examining studies on the brain's response to race-based discrimination. Researchers found the brain's biological response to repeated acts of discrimination -- whether real or perceived -- raises an individual's cortisol levels. Cortisol in low amounts helps control the body's immune system, but in large amounts can increase stress and inflammation that causes heart disease, diabetes and infection. Cortisol also can attribute to obesity, the Times reports.
"One of the most dangerous things that can happen to the body is when the cortisol signal is compromised or no longer working. It remains in a heightened state," Billi Gordon, a postdoctoral researcher at the UCLA center, said. Mays said that researchers "have always thought of race-based discrimination as producing a kind of attitude. Now we think we have sufficient information to say that it's more than just affecting your attitude. A person experiences it, has a response, and the response brings about a physiological reaction."
Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University's School of Medicine, said, "To my knowledge, no one has looked at the relationship between being an outgroup (racial or otherwise) and things like cortisol levels, but it makes perfect sense. It's a corrosive, permeating experience of lack of control -- the very definition of chronic psychosocial stressor," he adds, "That's a sure pathway to poor health" (Brink, Los Angeles Times, 9/24).