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Body's Response To Racial Discrimination Could Explain Racial Health, Mortality Gap

Armen Hareyan's picture

Racial Discrimination

Researchers studying the causes of racial disparities are"increasingly interested in the theory ... that racial discriminationcan result in unremitting stress" and cause an increased risk ofdisease and premature death among minorities, particularly black men,the Los Angeles Times reports.

Blackmen in the U.S. have an increased risk for "just about every healthproblem known," including most types of cancer, hypertension anddiabetes. Cardiovascular disease is considered to be a "major culpritin the black white mortality gap," according to the Times.Socioeconomic factors -- such as poverty, lack of access to care andhealthy foods, lifestyle and income -- are thought to partly explainracial health disparities and minorities' shorter life expectancy.

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A more recent report -- led by Vickie Mays, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Center on Research, Education, Training and Strategic Communication on Minority Health Disparities, and published in the 2007 Annual Review of Psychology-- looks to explain the racial health gap by examining studies on thebrain's response to race-based discrimination. Researchers found thebrain's biological response to repeated acts of discrimination --whether real or perceived -- raises an individual's cortisol levels.Cortisol in low amounts helps control the body's immune system, but inlarge amounts can increase stress and inflammation that causes heartdisease, diabetes and infection. Cortisol also can attribute toobesity, the Times reports.

"One of the most dangerous things that can happen to the body is whenthe cortisol signal is compromised or no longer working. It remains ina heightened state," Billi Gordon, a postdoctoral researcher at theUCLA center, said. Mays said that researchers "have always thought ofrace-based discrimination as producing a kind of attitude. Now we thinkwe have sufficient information to say that it's more than justaffecting your attitude. A person experiences it, has a response, andthe response brings about a physiological reaction."

Robert Sapolsky, a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University's School of Medicine,said, "To my knowledge, no one has looked at the relationship betweenbeing an outgroup (racial or otherwise) and things like cortisollevels, but it makes perfect sense. It's a corrosive, permeatingexperience of lack of control -- the very definition of chronicpsychosocial stressor," he adds, "That's a sure pathway to poor health"(Brink, Los Angeles Times, 9/24).


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