Exposure to Racism May Lead to Premature Aging Among African Americans

A new study led by David H. Chae, an associate professor of human sciences and the director of the Society, Health, and Racial Equity Lab at Auburn University in Alabama, finds that racism may result in premature biological aging among African Americans. The researchers found African Americans who reported being subjected to more racial discrimination over a 10-year period showed signs of faster aging at the cellular level during the same time frame.

A common underlying risk factor across many diseases of aging is the length of telomeres — the repetitive sequences of DNA at the ends of chromosomes that protect the cell. Short telomeres increase people’s risks of developing diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and dementia. Because telomeres get progressively shorter as people get older, they are considered to be an indicator of cell aging.

Researchers looked at data from a large group of African Americans in Birmingham, Alabama, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Oakland, California. Baseline data was collected in 2000 when participants were on average 40 years old and follow-up data was examined in 2010. Participants were asked about their experiences with racial discrimination in both 2000 and 2019.

“One of the factors that can lead to more rapid telomere shortening is high levels of stress,” Dr. Chae explained. “Racial discrimination is a particular type of stress experienced by African Americans that contributes to well-documented health disparities. We investigated one particular mechanism through which this occurs, namely, its impact on the telomere maintenance system. We found that greater accumulating experiences of racial discrimination during this midlife period was associated with a faster rate of telomere shortening.”

“Our results point to how racial discrimination, a particular type of social toxin that disproportionately impacts African Americans, becomes embedded at the cellular level,” Dr. Chae continued. “Racism continues to be a pressing social and moral dilemma, as well as a public health issue.”

The full study, Racial Discrimination and Telomere Shortening Among African Americans: The Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) Study,” was accepted for publication by the journal Health Psychology.

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