Discrimination May Cause People To Age Faster—And Affect White People Most, Study Suggests

Published 16 days ago
By Forbes | Arianna Johnson
The paper written as discrimination is torn on wood. Concept of abolition of discrimination.
(Getty Images)

Researchers from New York University looked at the biological effects of discrimination and found it may cause accelerated aging, building on prior research that found discrimination may contribute to health problems like depression and heart issues.

KEY FACTS

The researchers followed over 2,000 participants either between 2004 and 2009, or 2012 and 2016; 81% identified as white, 19% identified as Black, the average age was 53 years old and more than half were women, according to the study published Thursday in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity-Health.

Participants were surveyed on whether they experienced three types of discrimination: everyday discrimination, which is subtle instances of disrespect in daily life; major discrimination, which includes more severe actions like police brutality or being denied from buying a home; and workplace discrimination, which is unfair treatment and hindered professional growth at work.

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Previous research has already linked discrimination to health issues like heart problems and depression—which may cause accelerated aging—so the researchers looked at discrimination-related aging on a molecular level by scoring participants on DNA markers used to assess the biological impacts of aging.

They found participants who reported higher levels of all forms of discrimination had higher biological aging scores—meaning they aged faster—than those with the lowest levels, though everyday and major discrimination had more severe effects than workplace discrimination.

Exposure to discrimination can also trigger other physiological and behavioral responses like poor sleep and higher cortisol levels—a hormone that can cause weight gain, high blood pressure and high blood sugar if too high—which may also cause faster aging, according to the study.

SURPRISING FACT

Although Black participants experienced the most discrimination, and therefore had higher aging scores, white participants who did experience discrimination were more susceptible to the impacts of it. The researchers believe this may be due to white participants having fewer coping mechanisms, since they don’t experience discrimination as much. Previous research also found white people experienced more severe effects of discrimination, including higher mortality rates, than Black people.

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CRUCIAL QUOTE

“Experiencing discrimination appears to hasten the process of aging, which may be contributing to disease and early mortality, and fueling health disparities,” Adolfo Cuevas, senior author and an assistant professor in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at NYU’s School of Global Public Health, said in a statement.

KEY BACKGROUND

Discrimination may lead to other health issues. People who experienced intermediate levels of discrimination in the workplace were 22% more likely to develop high blood pressure compared to those who didn’t, and participants who experienced high levels of discrimination were 54% more likely to develop high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. Young adults who experience discrimination at least a few times a month are 25% more likely to be diagnosed with a mental health disorder and twice as likely to develop severe psychological distress than people who didn’t experience discrimination or did less often, a 2021 study found. Everyday discrimination significantly increases moderate to severe depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Coping mechanisms like smoking are increased due to discrimination, which can then lead to heart issues, according to previous research from NYU. Discrimination is linked to higher rates of death, especially from heart disease.

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