Black men who experience "high levels" of racism and internalize it may age more quickly, according to a new University of Maryland, College Park study.
Though it is well known that African-Americans suffer disproportionally from illness compared to other races, the university said the study is the first to link racism to accelerated aging and age-related disease. The study found that the more racial discrimination the men experienced and the more they reported a "stronger bias against their own racial group," the greater their signs of accelerated aging, according to the university.
Led by David H. Chae, a professor of epidemiology at UMCP's School of Public Health, researchers studied 92 participants, all black men between the ages of 30 and 50. They asked them to report their experiences with discrimination, including at restaurants and stores, with police and with work and housing. Researchers also measured their racial biases using the Black-White Implicit Association Test, which is designed to give insight into racial attitudes that people may not be aware of or are unwilling to admit.
"Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old," Chae said in a statement.
According to the study, black men who reported more serious or frequent racial discrimination and who had an implicit bias against their own race had far shorter telomeres, which cap the ends of DNA chromosomes and naturally shrink over time. Telomeres are used by scientists to measure cell age and are known to shorten more rapidly when people experience stress.
The study also found that black men who experienced racism but had stronger positive feelings about their racial group did not have the same shrunken telomeres.
"Those who have internalized an anti-black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres," Chae said.
Shorter telomeres are linked to an increased risk of early death and diseases like diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart disease. The university said researchers controlled for the participants' chronological age, socioeconomic status and existing health issues.
Chae said more study is needed into the link between racism and aging. He also criticized police tactics like "stop and frisk," saying participants reported feeling discriminated against by police most often, followed by job discrimination.