Racist experiences may increase inflammation, raising the risk of chronic illness, according to a new study published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology.
“We know discrimination is linked to health outcomes, but no one was sure exactly how it harmed health,” said Dr. April Thames, associate professor of psychology and psychiatry at University of Southern California (USC) Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.
“I looked at it as a chronic stressor. Our results showed that racial discrimination appears to trigger an inflammatory response among cs at the cellular level.”
The survival of all living things depends on their ability to respond to infections, stresses and injuries, according to researchers. Such threats trigger an immune system response to fend off pathogens and repair damaged tissues. A select group of genes are key to this defense mechanism, and inflammation is a sign that those genes are working to counter the threat or repair the damage.
Inflammation serves to protect an organism from a health threat. But if someone feels under threat for long periods of time, their health may suffer significantly with chronic inflammation.
“If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer,” said co-author Dr. Steve Cole from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).
In previous studies, Cole discovered that inflammatory responses are higher among people in socially-marginalized, isolated groups. “We’ve seen this before in chronic loneliness, poverty, PTSD, and other types of adversity,” he said. “But until now, nobody had looked at the effects of discrimination.”
For the new study, the team focused on a group of 71 participants: two-thirds of the group were African-Americans; the others were white.
In addition, 38 of the participants were positive for HIV. Their participation gave scientists a chance to study the effects of racism independently from the effects of the disease.
The researchers extracted RNA from the participants’ cells and measured molecules that trigger inflammation, as well as those involved in antiviral responses. Their results revealed greater levels of the inflammatory molecules in African-American participants.
The findings also indicate that racism may account for as much as 50 percent of the heightened inflammation among African-Americans, including those who were positive for HIV.
The team made sure that all the participants had similar socioeconomic background to account for financial stressors, which eliminated poverty as a potential factor for chronic inflammation.
“Racial discrimination is a different type of chronic stressor than poverty,” Thames said. “People navigate poverty on a day-to-day basis and are aware that it is happening. They might even be able to address financial stressors through job changes, changes in earnings and financial management. But with discrimination, you don’t always realize that it’s happening.”
A person’s’ decisions or lifestyle can reduce the ill effects of some stressors, but racial discrimination is a chronic stressor that people have no control over. “You can’t change your skin color,” she says.
Thames notes that the sample size in this study was small, but the results suggest that researchers should repeat the study with a larger sample to fully determine the inflammatory effects of racism on people of color.