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Racism victims may age faster

Jan. 7, 2013
Courtesy of the University of Maryland
and World Science staff

Vic­tims of rac­ism may suffer accelerated aging if they let the neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes about them sink in, a study finds. 

Re­search­ers said they found signs of ac­cel­er­ated ag­ing in Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men re­port­ing high lev­els of ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion and who had “in­ter­nal­ized an­ti-black at­ti­tudes.” The find­ings are pub­lished in the Amer­i­can Jour­nal of Pre­ven­tive Med­i­cine.

Telo­meres, shown here in red, are re­pet­i­tive se­quences of DNA cap­ping the ends of chro­mo­somes and pro­tect­ing them from de­te­ri­o­ration or fu­sion with neigh­bor­ing chro­mo­somes. Telo­meres short­en pro­gres­sive­ly over time. (Cred­it: Wiki­pedia com­mons)


Ra­cial dis­par­i­ties in health are well doc­u­mented. Af­ri­can Amer­i­cans have shorter life ex­pect­an­cy and a great­er like­li­hood of suf­fer­ing from ag­ing-related ill­nesses at young­er ages than whites.

The sci­en­tists ex­am­ined a bi­o­log­i­cal mark­er “of sys­tem­ic ag­ing, known as leu­ko­cyte telom­ere length,” said Da­vid H. Chae, an ep­i­de­mi­ologist at the Uni­vers­ity of Mar­y­land School of Pub­lic Health and the lead in­ves­ti­ga­tor.

Shorter telo­mere length is as­so­ci­at­ed with in­creased risk of prem­a­ture death and chron­ic dis­ease such as di­a­be­tes, de­men­tia, stroke and heart dis­ease. “We found that the Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men who ex­pe­ri­enced great­er ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion and who dis­played a stronger bi­as against their own ra­cial group had the short­est telo­meres of those stud­ied.”

Telom­eres are re­pet­i­tive se­quences of DNA cap­ping the ends of chro­mo­somes. Telo­meres short­en over time. Their length is var­i­a­ble, short­ening more rap­idly un­der con­di­tions of high psy­cho­so­cial and phys­i­o­lo­gical stress. 

“Telom­ere length may be a bet­ter in­di­ca­tor of bi­o­log­i­cal age, which can give us in­sight in­to varia­t­ions in the cu­mu­la­tive ‘wear and tear’ of the or­gan­ism net of chron­o­log­i­cal age,” said Chae. 

Among Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men with stronger an­ti-black at­ti­tudes, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that av­er­age telo­mere length was 140 base pairs shorter in those re­port­ing high vs. low lev­els of ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion. A base pair is anal­o­gous to a “let­ter” of DNA code. The dif­fer­ence may equate to 1.4 to 2.8 years chron­o­log­ic­ally, Chae and col­leagues said.

The study looked at 92 Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men be­tween 30-50 years of age. In­ves­ti­ga­tors asked them about their ex­pe­ri­ences of dis­crimina­t­ion in do­mains in­clud­ing work and hous­ing, as well as in get­ting serv­ice at stores or restau­rants, from the po­lice, and in oth­er pub­lic set­tings. They al­so meas­ured ra­cial bi­as us­ing the Black-White Im­plic­it As­socia­t­ion Test. This test gauges un­con­scious at­ti­tudes and be­liefs about race groups that peo­ple may be un­aware of or un­will­ing to re­port.

Even af­ter ad­just­ing for par­ti­ci­pants’ ac­tu­al age, so­ci­o­ec­onomic fac­tors, and health-related char­ac­ter­is­tics, in­ves­ti­ga­tors found that the com­bina­t­ion of high ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion and an­ti-black bi­as was as­so­ci­at­ed with the short­est telo­meres. 

On the oth­er hand, the da­ta re­vealed that ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion had lit­tle rela­t­ion­ship with telo­mere length among those hold­ing pro-black at­ti­tudes. “Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men who have more pos­i­tive views of their ra­cial group may be buffered from the neg­a­tive im­pact of ra­cial dis­crimina­t­ion,” ex­plained Chae. “In con­trast, those who have in­ter­nal­ized an an­ti-black bi­as may be less able to cope with rac­ist ex­pe­ri­ences, which may re­sult in great­er stress and shorter telo­meres.”

“De­spite the lim­ita­t­ions of our stu­dy, we con­trib­ute to a grow­ing body of re­search show­ing that so­cial tox­ins dis­pro­por­tion­ately im­pacting Af­ri­can Amer­i­can men are harm­ful to health,” Chae added. “Our find­ings sug­gest that rac­ism lit­er­ally makes peo­ple old.”


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Victims of racism may age faster if they let the negative attitudes about them sink in, a study finds. Researchers said they found signs of accelerated aging in African American men reporting high levels of racial discrimination and who had “internalized anti-black attitudes.” The findings are published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. Racial disparities in health are well documented. African Americans have shorter life expectancy and a greater likelihood of suffering from aging-related illnesses at younger ages than whites. The scientists examined a biological marker “of systemic aging, known as leukocyte telomere length,” said David H. Chae, an epidemiologist at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the lead investigator. Shorter telomere length is associated with increased risk of premature death and chronic disease such as diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart disease. “We found that the African American men who experienced greater racial discrimination and who displayed a stronger bias against their own racial group had the shortest telomeres of those studied.” Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA capping the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten over time. Their length is variable, shortening more rapidly under conditions of high psychosocial and physiological stress. “Telomere length may be a better indicator of biological age, which can give us insight into variations in the cumulative ‘wear and tear’ of the organism net of chronological age,” said Chae. Among African American men with stronger anti-black attitudes, investigators found that average telomere length was 140 base pairs shorter in those reporting high vs. low levels of racial discrimination. A base pair is analogous to a “letter” of DNA code. The difference may equate to 1.4 to 2.8 years chronologically, Chae and colleagues said. The study looked at 92 African American men between 30-50 years of age. Investigators asked them about their experiences of discrimination in domains including work and housing, as well as in getting service at stores or restaurants, from the police, and in other public settings. They also measured racial bias using the Black-White Implicit Association Test. This test gauges unconscious attitudes and beliefs about race groups that people may be unaware of or unwilling to report. Even after adjusting for participants’ actual age, socioeconomic factors, and health-related characteristics, investigators found that the combination of high racial discrimination and anti-Black bias was associated with the shortest telomeres. On the other hand, the data revealed that racial discrimination had little relationship with telomere length among those holding pro-Black attitudes. “African American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination,” explained Chae. “In contrast, those who have internalized an anti-Black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres.” “Despite the limitations of our study, we contribute to a growing body of research showing that social toxins disproportionately impacting African American men are harmful to health,” Chae added. “Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old.”