UC Berkeley researchers find discrimination can cause chronic illnesses

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UC Berkeley researchers published a study in September showing that racial discrimination is associated with a higher risk of developing chronic illnesses such as stroke, cardiovascular disease and cancer.

According to Marilyn Thomas, a researcher involved in the study and a campus doctoral student in epidemiology, they studied 208 Black women from the San Francisco Bay Area and used allostatic load, an overall measure using multiple biological indicators to predict risk of developing chronic illnesses — a low allostatic load indicates low risk, and high allostatic load indicates high risk.

Thomas said the study’s main finding was an association between racial discrimination and the likelihood of developing chronic illnesses. Leonard Syme, a professor emeritus of epidemiology, said the study underlined the importance of education for Black individuals, which turned out to be a much larger factor than poverty.

“After 60 years of banging my head against the wall wondering how social forces affect the body, this paper explains how it (social forces) changes physiology,” Syme, who gave the researchers advice, said.

For example, Black women who had a higher level of education than a high school diploma had a lower allostatic load if they experienced frequent discrimination than if they experienced moderate discrimination, and vice versa for Black women with lower levels of education, Thomas said.

Thomas hypothesized in a press release that this was because higher educated Black women tended to see discrimination as a systemic issue they needed to overcome, while Black women with less education had a tendency to blame themselves for discrimination.

Syme said the reason for starting the study was the personal interest of the lead researcher and campus professor of epidemiology Amani Allen, who was curious as to why certain racial groups, such as her own, had higher rates of disease.

According to Thomas, the study was conducted using information from the African American Women’s Heart and Health Study between March 2012 and March 2018. She added that the subjects were recruited using various strategies to get the most random sample and that the study consisted of two visits to each subject.

“This wasn’t run by a small group of people in a back room — this was a big deal,” Syme said. “There was a large group of really expert investigators working together to analyze a tremendous amount of data.”

During the first visit, each subject was interviewed by a researcher and answered questions on a computer to alleviate pressure when talking about personal issues, Thomas said. In the second visit, each subject did a physical examination, gave a blood sample, received health-promoting materials and received a $70 gift card.

According to Thomas, the study highlights the idea that access to health care is not the only determinant of health but that society can play an important role too. She added that education is shown to have a much higher correlation with allostatic load than with wealth.

“We’ve known for many many years that African Americans have had higher rates of many chronic diseases, and this article shows how discrimination is a cause,” Syme said.

Yao Huang covers research and ideas. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Yhoneplus.