Stress From Discrimination Can Affect Black Teens for the Rest of Their Lives
Filed in Research & Studies on September 21, 2015
A new study led by researchers at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, finds that stress brought on due to continued exposure to racial animosity and discrimination negatively impacts hormonal levels in Black teenagers which can lead to a lifetime of health problems.
The authors of the study found that exposure to discrimination can have a negative impact on cortisol levels in both Black and Whites, but even more so in Blacks. And Blacks are more likely than Whites to be the victims of racial hostility or discrimination. The research also found that dysfunctional levels of cortisol are linked to fatigue, impaired memory function, and cardiovascular disease.
In times of stress, the body releases several hormones, including cortisol. Ideally, cortisol levels are high in the morning to help energize individuals for the day ahead. At night, cortisol levels wane as the body prepares for sleep. Previous research indicates that discrimination can affect the natural rhythm of this process. This study suggests for the first time that the impact of discrimination on cortisol adds up over time. Using data collected over a 20–year period, the researchers showed that the more discrimination people experience throughout adolescence and early adulthood, the more dysfunctional their cortisol rhythms are by age 32.
Emma K. Adam, a professor and chair of the department of human development and social policy at Northwestern University and the lead author of the study, stated that “we found cumulative experiences matter and that discrimination mattered more for Blacks. We saw a flattening of cortisol levels for both Blacks and Whites, but Blacks also had an overall drop in levels. The surprise was that this was particularly true for discrimination that happened during adolescence.”
The study, “Developmental Histories of Perceived Racial Discrimination and Diurnal Cortisol Profiles in Adulthood: A 20-Year Prospective Study,” was published on the website of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and will be included in the December 2015 issue. It may be accessed here.