Can racism impact your health? This study gives answers

New Delhi: People who face racism may be at an increased risk of inflammation and chronic illness, a study has found. Inflammation serves to protect an organism from a health threat. However, if someone feels under threat for long periods of time, their health may suffer significantly with chronic inflammation.

“If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer,” said Steve Cole of the University of California, Los Angeles in the US.

The research, published in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, shows that racist experiences increase inflammation in African American individuals, raising their risk of chronic illness.

“We know discrimination is linked to health outcomes, but no one was sure exactly how it harmed health,” said April Thames, an associate professor at the University of Southern California in the US. The survival of all living things depends on their ability to respond to infections, stresses and injuries. Such threats trigger an immune system response to fend off pathogens and repair damaged tissues.

A select group of genes are key to this defence mechanism, and inflammation is a sign that those genes are working to counter the threat or repair the damage. In previous studies, researchers had found that inflammatory responses are heightened among people in socially-marginalised, isolated groups.

“We’ve seen this before in chronic loneliness, poverty, PTSD, and other types of adversity. But until now, nobody had looked at the effects of discrimination,” said Cole. For the study, researchers focused on a group of 71 subjects: two-thirds of them were African Americans; the others were white.

In addition, 38 of the participants were positive for HIV. Their participation gave scientists a chance to study the effects of racism independently from the effects of the disease. The scientists extracted RNA from the participants’ cells and measured molecules that trigger inflammation, as well as those involved in antiviral responses.

The team found higher levels of the inflammatory molecules in African American participants. The results also indicate that racism may account for as much as 50 per cent of the heightened inflammation among African Americans, including those who were positive for HIV.

The scientists made sure that all the participants had a similar socioeconomic background to account for financial stressors, which eliminated poverty as a potential factor for chronic inflammation among the people in the study.

“Racial discrimination is a different type of chronic stressor than poverty,” Thames said. “People navigate poverty on a day-to-day basis and are aware that it is happening. They might even be able to address financial stressors through job changes, changes in earnings and financial management. But with discrimination, you don’t always realise that it’s happening,” she said. Individuals’ decisions or lifestyles can reduce the ill effects of some stressors, but racial discrimination is a chronic stressor that people have no control over.