September 02, 2014
Does Racism Accelerate Aging?
Be Well

Does Racism Accelerate Aging?

by David Tuller, DrPH  |  

Personal experiences of racial discrimination combined with negative feelings about one’s own racial group appear to accelerate the aging process among African-American men. So suggests a study published recently in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, which was co-authored by a social epidemiologist from UC Berkeley.

The researchers studied the length of telomeres—which are DNA sequences at the ends of chromosomes that protect against the degradation of genes. Telomeres gradually shorten as we age.

Shorter telomeres in white blood cells called leukocytes have been associated with earlier mortality—as well as increased rates of chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and dementia.

In the study, the researches tested the leukocyte telomere length of 95 African-American men between the ages of 30 and 50 from the San Francisco Bay Area. They found that those who reported greater levels of racial discrimination and who also held what is called an implicit racial self-bias had the shortest telomeres. (An implicit bias is one you are not consciously aware of having.) Interestingly, personal experiences of racial discrimination did not result in shorter telomeres among men who held a positive view of African-Americans rather than a negative one.

The researchers suggested that a sense of racial pride could provide a healthy buffer against the potentially harmful impacts of repeated acts of discrimination. “Results are consistent with prior studies that have found that those with a bias against their own racial group are more vulnerable to the impact of racial stigma, and that greater in-group identification and positive racial evaluation may lessen the negative impact of racial discrimination,” wrote the authors.

The co-author from Berkeley’s School of Public Health is Amani Nuru-Jeter, Ph.D., M.P.H., who studies how social and societal factors affect health outcomes. The study team also included researchers from the University of Maryland in College Park, the University of California, San Francisco, and Emory University in Atlanta.