A new study suggests that racial discrimination may in fact be linked to faster aging among Black Americans.
In a report published in the journal Health Psychology, scientists found that African Americans who reported racial discrimination over a 10-year period showed signs of faster aging at the cellular level.
Researchers said the aging takes place in the shortening of telomeres, which are repetitive sequences of DNA that sit at the tips of chromosomes and keep them from fraying.
Short telomeres increase people’s risks of developing diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and dementia. Because telomeres get shorter as people age, they are considered to be an indicator of cell aging.
“One of the factors that can lead to more rapid telomere shortening is high levels of stress,” researcher Dr. David Chae, an associate professor at Auburn University in Alabama, said in a statement.
“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,” Chae said.
Researchers analyzed data from nearly 400 black Americans with an average age of 40 who participated in a telomere study. Participants were asked about the racial discrimination they experienced over a 10-year period. Most commonly reported were experiences of racial discrimination on the street or in a public setting, followed by discrimination at work or in getting a job.
Chae said researchers found that greater accumulating experiences of racial discrimination during this midlife period was associated with a faster rate of telomere shortening.
While the research fell short of proving cause and effect, Chae said the findings point to the need for long-term research to study biological consequences of racial discrimination.
“Our results point to how racial discrimination, a particular type of social toxin that disproportionately impacts African Americans, becomes embedded at the cellular level,” Chae said. “Racism continues to be a pressing social and moral dilemma, as well as a public health issue.”