More than half of Black women in America aged 20 and older have cardiovascular diseases, according to the American Heart Association, and every year, 50,000 will die as a result. Some researchers have tied Black women’s increased risk of heart disease to genetics, others to higher rates of obesity and diabetes. A new Boston University-led study points to another key factor: experiences of racism.
A team of researchers who followed more than 48,000 Black women over 22 years found those who reported experiencing interpersonal racism in employment, housing, and in interactions with the police had a 26 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than those who did not. The women were participants in BU’s Black Women’s Health Study, a more than 25-year effort to track the health of 59,000 women in the United States.
Although the research team discovered an association between a higher probability of heart disease and self-reported experiences of racism in employment, housing, and interactions with the police, they found that racism in everyday life — for example, at a store or in a restaurant — was not linked with an increased risk. The authors suggest that’s because while the different types of racism are pernicious and damaging, their relative consequences are varied. Someone discriminated against in a store may be able to draw on coping mechanisms — like talking with a friend — but missing out on a promotion or a mortgage is much harder to tune out.
“When we think about how racism impacts our health, it’s a psychosocial stressor,” says co-author Shanshan Sheehy, an assistant professor in the university’s School of Medicine. “It increases your blood pressure, your level of inflammation — all of these biological mechanisms increase your risk of coronary heart disease.”
“Structural racism is real — on the job, in educational circumstances, and in interactions with the criminal justice system,” added co-author Michelle A. Albert, American Heart Association president and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “Now, we have hard data linking it to cardiovascular outcomes, which means that we as a society need to work on the things that create the barriers that perpetuate structural racism.”