Health & wellness

Deep Breath

Stress of prejudice may harm long-term health

prejudice and stress credit James Yang

James Yang

The country’s national conversation periodically focuses on race and then, inevitably, veers elsewhere. But racial minorities don’t have the luxury of forgetting about prejudice, and now a new study suggests there may be a price to pay for living with that daily stress.

“Each of the instances may be quite subtle,” said Emma Adam, a professor of human development and social policy and a developmental psychologist at Northwestern University, who helped lead the study. But “when they accumulate over time, they really have more profound effects on biology than if you look in the moment.”

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The researchers tracked 50 black and 62 white volunteers for 20 years, starting when they were in seventh grade. The participants who reported that they were exposed to prejudice — particularly as teenagers — showed a problem with stress hormones in their early 30s.

In a typical healthy person, levels of the stress hormone cortisol spike in the morning, providing a burst of energy to tackle what’s coming for the day. Toward bedtime, they decline, allowing people to unwind and fall asleep.

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In those who faced prejudice that cortisol curve was out of whack, the study found. They didn’t get a burst of energy in the morning, making it harder for them to accomplish goals, and they didn’t experience as much of a decline in the evening, making it tougher to get a good night’s sleep.

Previous research has shown that such unusual cortisol rhythms can lead to a range of health problems, Adam said, such as diabetes, obesity, heart disease, immune problems, and depression.

This suggests — though it hasn’t been proven definitively — that the prejudice children face in the halls of middle school contribute to their ailments decades later. It may help explain why older, nonwhite Americans tend to have worse health outcomes than whites.

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“Things that African-Americans knew for a long time, we’re beginning to see documented,” said Elizabeth Brondolo, a psychology professor at St. John’s University in New York.

Social stressors — such as being rejected because of race — are incredibly powerful and take a huge toll, said Tené Lewis, an associate professor at Emory University, who studies the link between racial disparities and cardiovascular disease.

How can someone restore their cortisol rhythm? Scientists don’t know.

But for the first time, there’s a major research effort underway to figure that out, Brondolo said, which offers reason for hope.

KAREN WEINTRAUB

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