Being the target of discrimination is hard on your health – especially if you let the way others see and treat you affect the way you see yourself.
Internalizing prejudice may even shorten your life, according to a new study that looks at the effects of racism on health and longevity.
“Racism impacts aging at the cellular level,” says David H. Chae, Sc.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health. In other words, it affects our health and longevity in much the same way as heart disease.
In his study of 92 African-American men ages 30 to 50, Chae examined a key marker of health and longevity – the length of the men’s telomeres. Telomeres are DNA sequences that cap the ends of our chromosomes.
As we age, these protective caps tend to shorten, and their decreased length is linked with cancers, lung problems, anemia and other ill health. Besides age, high levels of stress can also speed telomere shortening.
It’s common for us to experience physiological responses when we’re treated unfairly: a pounding headache, tense muscles, a stomach ache. Other studies have found that encounters with racism can lead to increased anxiety, elevated blood pressure and higher levels of inflammation, all bad for your health and not productive for healthy aging, Chae says.
In his study, Chae found a lethal combination: “Those who had an internalized anti-black bias and who experienced high levels of racial discrimination had the shortest telomeres,” Chae says. “Those two things in combination have the most negative effect on health.”
Chae can’t say whether his results would apply to people who experience sexism, ageism, homophobia or other forms of hate.
Linking Racism and Biological Aging
Chae’s new study, published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, may be the first to link racism directly with biological aging. Other research has linked racism with increased risk of heart disease and worsening of diabetes, among other problems, Chae says.
For the study, Chae interviewed the men about their experiences with discrimination. He also gave them a test designed to measure their unconscious racial bias against fellow African-American men.
He took blood samples, extracted DNA and measured the men’s telomeres.
The bottom line: A strong sense of pride in who you are helps to arm you against the biological battering of prejudice. In his study, Chae says, “people who had pro-black beliefs were protected from the effect of the anti-black discrimination they reported.” Those who had negative views of their own race were not.
While racism will likely continue, Chae says, ”We can be proud of who we are and try to develop more positive views of our own racial group.”
Of course, it’s easy to say “don’t heed the haters” and “be proud of who you are,” but the internalization of prejudice is subtle and complex; it includes believing the stereotypes and hating those things about yourself that others hate.
Although we don’t yet know if Chae’s findings apply to other forms of discrimination, too, this study should be a wake-up call for all who are members of groups that bear the brunt – and those that discriminate.
Click here to read more details on the study. (Three of the study’s co-authors are cofounders of Telomere Health, Inc., a diagnostics company related to telomere biology.)