The biological effects of racial discrimination

What does racial discrimination look like? Racial discrimination, it turns out, looks like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, hypertension and obesity.

Researchers analyzed blood, saliva and urine samples and interviewed 223 middle-aged, black Milwaukee residents. The majority of participants, 81.1 percent, reported race was the basis for at least one of the “interpersonal unfair treatment in their daily lives” treatment events they experienced.  It can make us sick.

An overwhelming proportion of the more than 2 million home care workers are middle aged women of color, according to a PHI report of U.S. Home Care Workers. Beyond the standard issues of burnout, low wages and turnover, nursing administrators need to be concerned about racial discrimination.

“Chronic experiences of discrimination and mistreatment can affect health in the most insidious of ways, both because such experiences can undercut rights and opportunities that may be of vital importance to stigmatized groups and because they have the potential to negate the significance of personal agency and identity in the lives of marginalized individuals,” says Anthony D. Ong, associate professor of human development in Cornell’s College of Human Ecology and lead author of a report in press at the journal Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, in a university press release.

Those participants experienced enough day-to-day forms of mistreatment—being followed around stores or stopped without cause by police—over the decades to make them clinically sick, according to lab results across 22 comprehensive biomarkers.

Researchers distinguished everyday hassles from “unfair treatment,” such as being denied a promotion, a loan or a lease in certain neighborhoods. Everyday incidents of discrimination correlated best with the medical indicator called allostatic load (AL) and was the sum of seven physiological system risk indices: cardiovascular regulation, lipid, glucose, inflammation, sympathetic nervous system, parasympathetic nervous system and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. If individuals with heavy ALs weren’t already suffering related medical conditions at mid-life, they were at higher risk in the future.

Researchers say their study warrants further investigation and “points to the significance of chronic everyday discrimination in the lives of African Americans…by illustrating how social conditions external to the individual ‘get under the skin’ to affect later health and disease outcomes.”

Topics: Clinical , Leadership