Less-Educated Black Women May Face Greater Risk of Chronic Diseases Due to Discrimination

A new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley has found that less-educated African-American women who report experiencing high levels of racial discrimination may face greater risk of developing chronic diseases. The study is the first to examine the links between racial discrimination and allostatic load, a measure of chronic physiologic stress in the body that is a predictor of a variety of chronic diseases.

For the study, the researchers asked a large group of  middle-aged African-American women to complete a questionnaire rating their experiences of racial discrimination in different contexts, including the housing market, finding employment, at work, at school, getting credit for a bank loan or mortgage, and in healthcare settings. The research team gave each participant a physical exam, recording their height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar, and measures of inflammation and other health indicators that can contribute to allostatic load.

The findings showed that African American women with a high school diploma or less who experienced a high level of racial discrimination also experienced higher allostatic load. However, this trend was reversed for highly educated women, for whom very high levels of racial discrimination correlated with lower allostatic load. The researchers believe this may be because women with higher education are more likely to attribute their discrimination to systemic racism rather than blaming the incident on themselves.

Although this study has shown that education is a powerful predictor of health, the researchers stress that it should not be seen as a solution to potential adverse health effects of racial discrimination.

“We need to think about the determinants of health in different ways,” said Amani M. Allen, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health services in the School of Public Health at the University of California, Berkeley, and the lead author of the study. “They are not just access to care, genetics or even socioeconomic position. We need to look at the social conditions of people’s day-to-day lives, and how we might improve those conditions so that every person, regardless of their race, their gender or anything else, has an equitable opportunity to live optimally. Unequal treatment is bad for health.”

Dr. Allen has taught at the University of California, Berkeley since 2005. She holds a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in neurophysiology from the University of Maryland, a master of public health degree from George Washington University, and a Ph.D. from the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

The study, “Racial Discrimination, Educational Attainment, and Biological Dysregulation Among Midlife African American Women,” was published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. It may be accessed here.

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