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Racial Discrimination Is Linked to Worse Health Over Ten Years Later

Difficulty sleeping and higher inflammation may drive this relationship

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This study provides more evidence that racial discrimination, even in adolescence, may have a lasting influence on health.”

Nia Heard-Garris
Pediatrician and IPR associate

 Black woman having trouble sleeping

A growing body of research shows that racial discrimination can negatively impact physical health. What isn’t fully understood are the mechanisms that link the two.

A new study finds that young Black adults who reported experiencing racial discrimination in their late teens and early 20s had an increased risk of metabolic syndrome—a predictor of heart disease, diabetes, and stroke—at age 31. The study’s authors wanted to understand the relationship between racial discrimination and metabolic syndrome in Black youth over time.

Co-authored by pediatrician and IPR associate Nia Heard-Garris and IPR health psychologists Edith Chen and Greg Miller, the research suggests that inflammation and difficulty sleeping may be pathways that explain how racial discrimination leads to poor health. It also shows that experiencing racial discrimination at a young age can be especially damaging.

“This study provides more evidence that racial discrimination, even in adolescence, may have a lasting influence on health,” said Heard-Garris, first author of the JAMA Network Open study.

The researchers analyzed data from the Strong African Americans Health Adults Project (SHAPE). It has followed a group of Black participants in rural Georgia from age 11 to young adulthood for nearly three decades.

Between 2009 and 2010, 322 participants between 19 and 21 years old answered questions about their experiences with discrimination such as “Have you been treated rudely or disrespectfully because of your race?” When they were 25 years old, participants reported whether they had trouble sleeping. They participated in a biomarker study between the ages of 19–21 and also had blood samples taken at ages 25 and 31 that researchers used to measure inflammation.

This study is one of the first to identify possible pathways that racial discrimination can predispose young Black adults to metabolic syndrome over a long period. The researchers show that at age 25, 19%, or 60 participants, had metabolic syndrome. By age 31—only six years later—metabolic syndrome nearly doubled to 37% (118) among participants.

“This particular research question was interesting to me because we know that racial discrimination is harmful for health,” Heard-Garris said. “But it sometimes can be difficult to isolate the mechanisms that drive this relationship.”

Chen says racial discrimination could impact sleep because it can lead to negative thoughts and emotions about the incident.

“These thoughts and emotions may then disrupt sleep, and in turn, poor sleep over time can contribute to metabolic syndrome,” Chen said.

Heard-Garris says that while the study does not test interventions that could reduce the risk of metabolic syndrome, we know that quality sleep is essential for good health. Because many Black Americans face racial discrimination, she encouraged doctors to consider ways to help their Black patients get longer and better quality sleep.

Heard-Garris and her team at the ARISE Health Lab, which examines the role of adversity and racism on health, recently completed a pilot intervention testing how a racial justice activism intervention affected adolescents. Early results suggest this intervention may reduce depressive symptoms.

Future research, she says, should test whether other interventions can help decrease the impact of racial discrimination. The findings suggest that promoting better nutrition and exercise and increasing access to healthcare will not be enough to reduce or prevent metabolic syndrome among minorities.

“Ultimately, policy and large-scale societal interventions are required to reduce racial discrimination as a whole,” Heard-Garris said.

Miller explains that the results show that even when health issues don’t appear until adulthood, the root problem happens much earlier in a person’s life.

“We can use that knowledge to develop better policies and practices that prevent health problems from emerging,” he said.

Nia Heard-Garris is an assistant professor of pediatrics and an IPR associate. Edith Chen is the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Psychology and an IPR fellow. Greg Miller is the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology and an IPR fellow.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: May 29, 2024.