A new study led by Cynthia Colen, an associate professor of sociology at Ohio State University, suggests that children’s exposure to discrimination can harm their mothers’ health. The study found that when biological and environmental factors affecting women’s health are accounted for, there tends to be a decline in a middle-aged woman’s health corresponding to the level of discrimination experienced by their children.
“When we think about discrimination, we tend to think about what happens to an individual if they themselves experience unfair treatment, whether it’s because of their sex or their race or something else,” Dr. Colen said. “This paper argues that the health effects of discrimination reverberate through families and have the potential to reverberate through communities.”
The study examined two generations of families using data from mother-child pairs in the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979, a national study that has been ongoing for 40 years. African American adolescents and young adults reported the most experiences of discrimination: Almost 22 percent of Blacks reported frequent instances of acute discrimination. Racial disparities in the mothers’ health status also were evident: By age 50, 31 percent of Blacks reported having fair or poor health, compared to 17 percent of whites.”
Analyzing the data in statistical models revealed that mothers of children reporting moderate or high levels of acute discrimination were up to 22 percent more likely to face a decline in their health between age 40 and 50 than mothers of children who reported low levels of acute discrimination. The analysis showed that children’s experiences with discrimination explained 7 and 10 percent of the gap in health declines between Black and White women.
“We have known for a long time that people who are treated unfairly are more likely to have poor mental and physical health,” Colen said. “Now we know that these negative health effects aren’t restricted to the person who experiences discrimination firsthand – instead they are intergenerational, and they are likely to be a contributor to racial disparities in health that mean people of color can expect to die younger and live less healthy lives.”
The full study, “The Intergenerational Transmission of Discrimination: Children’s Experiences of Unfair Treatment and Their Mothers’ Health at Midlife,” was published on the website of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. It may be accessed here.