Story at a glance
- The Black Lives Matter movement has helped to educate the American public on some of the challenges faced by Black Americans, from constant microaggressions to greater instances of police violence.
- Links have already been drawn between severe acts of discrimination and long-lasting racial trauma, which can negatively affect mental and physical health.
- Researchers have now found that racial discrimination also puts African Americans at greater risk for accelerated aging at the cellular level.
2020 has been a year of both intense trauma and long overdue illumination, as both the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests have helped shed light on the preexisting inequities faced by people of color — especially Black Americans.
The Black Lives Matter movement has already helped educate more Americans about our country’s historical, and present day, racism. People have learned about distinct challenges and traumatizing events faced by Black Americans in the United States, from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre to the origin and meaning of the Juneteenth holiday. These traumas are not without their lasting implications either, as their burden is felt throughout generations by way of racial trauma.
Racial trauma has been shown to manifest both psychologically and physiologically, and those who suffer from it can experience anything from hypervigilance to threats and suspiciousness to headaches and heart palpitations — similar to the symptoms felt by those suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.
Now, another link has been drawn between experienced racism and the deterioration of one’s physical health at the cellular level, adding to a growing mound of evidence that racism is not only a social and moral dilemma but an important issue of public health.
Emotional traumas, physical manifestations
Sierra Carter is a psychology professor at Georgia State University, as well as a researcher who has devoted years of her time to learning more about the connection between high levels of racial discrimination and a lower life expectancy for Black Americans.
“I’m part of a research team that has been following more than 800 Black American families for almost 25 years,” writes Carter in a recent op-ed for The Conversation. “We found that people who had reported experiencing high levels of racial discrimination when they were young teenagers had significantly higher levels of depression in their 20s than those who hadn’t. This elevated depression, in turn, showed up in their blood samples, which revealed accelerated aging on a cellular level.”
Established in 1996 at Iowa State University and the University of Georgia, the research Carter is referring to is called the Family and Community Health Study — the largest study of African American families in the country. For more than two decades it has delved into “how stress, neighborhood characteristics and other factors affect Black American parents and their children over a lifetime.”
Self-reported questionnaires on experiences of racial discrimination and depressive symptoms were collected every two to three years, then in 2015 the team began collecting blood samples to assess participants’ risks for heart disease and diabetes, as well as what Carter describes as “biomarkers that predict the early onset of these diseases.”
What the researchers found is that some young people were actually “older” at a cellular level compared to their chronological age. The culprit: racial discrimination, which Carter says accounted for much of this specific variation and helped solidify a connection between accelerated aging and such traumatic experiences.
“Our research is not the first to show Black Americans live sicker lives and die younger than other racial or ethnic groups. The experience of constant and accumulating stress due to racism throughout an individual’s lifetime can wear and tear down the body – literally ‘getting under the skin’ to affect health.”
Additional research by Auburn University has helped to strengthen the theory that severe racial discrimination affects people at the cellular level, as results of the study showed a link between an increase in racial discrimination and a more rapid shortening of telomeres — pieces of DNA that protect — which provides an indication of cell aging.
Doubtless there is still much to explore of the connection between cell aging and instances of traumatizing discrimination, and there are no indications that Carter plans on stopping her research any time soon. Next her team plans on focusing more closely on the accelerated aging process and delving into the concept of resiliency and early life interventions and their potential to offset and prevent health decline.
“With continued research,” says Carter, “my colleagues and I hope to identify ways to interrupt the harmful effects of racism so that Black lives matter and are able to thrive.”
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