By: Emily Chen
(Retrieved from Unsplash; Taken by Ricardo Fontes Mendes)
Stress has been seen as a beneficial mechanism that enables us to perceive and act in the event of danger. The stress response activated by the brain’s hypothalamus causes adrenal glands to release stress hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which has allowed our ancestors to flee or fight in a jeopardizing situation. In modern times, this same stress response motivates us to set aside time to study hard when we have a few exams coming up, or pick up our pace to be at an interview on-time. It serves as an impetus for certain physiological changes, such as fast heart rate and increased blood pressure, that we’ve all experienced to face our stressors. This beneficial kind of stress is not day-to-day for the average person; it usually lasts from minutes to hours, and goes away. However, chronic stress, which is stress that is continually experienced over a period of time, is particularly prevalent in disadvantaged, minority populations, most notably in African Americans. Chronic stress can be destructive to one’s health, and contributes to weathering, which is detailed as the premature biological aging due to the chronic stress of experienced racism. Though biological weathering affects the black population at large, one of the most vulnerable groups is pregnant African-Amercian women.
Long-term stress is known to accelerate the aging of cells. It’s a classic example of environment x genetics: how environment can influence the biology and genetics of an individual, and more specifically, how lived experiences can inscribe themselves into one’s health. According to the American Psychological Association, chronic stress has also been linked to disorders like depression, and other medical issues, such as migraines and fatal heart attacks.
However, it’s important to note that the most negative effects are not seen in those that are poverty stricken, but rather those who experience differences in their environment due to race. In Geronimus’s 2015 study on telomere length, they surveyed telomere lengths of 239 black, white, and Mexican adults who all differed in annual income. Telomere length, which is a cap that protects the DNA at the end of a chromosome, naturally shortens as one ages, but an individual who experiences long-term stress may have shorter telomere lengths compared to those their age who do not experience chronic stress. This study found that indigent white subjects had shorter telomere lengths than moderate-income whites, low-income Mexican subjects had longer telomere lengths than moderate-income Mexicans, and African-Americans from all incomes had similar telomere lengths. The findings of the study emphasize that poverty does not tell the complete story behind weathering, and that experienced racism should be seen robustly as a contributing factor to premature aging and poor health outcomes.
As it relates to teen pregnant African-American women, one of the more vulnerable groups in the population, they are more likely to have higher preterm births, low birth rate, and infant death than young white pregnant women. In a 2017 Medicine study led by Tsai, it was shown that recently-immigrated individuals had lower rates of preterm births than African-American women, which suggests that the environmental factors and encounters faced while living in the U.S. may contribute more to higher rates of preterm births rather than race or ethnicity itself. As for black maternal mortality, it is three to four times more likely for black women to die from pregnancy-related complications than white women in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and it is believed that weathering plays a prominent role in this observation.
While there is certainly much more research to be done on this phenomenon, accumulated evidence suggests that oppression and experienced racism can take a toll on the oppressed, their biology, and their physical health, not to mention on infant outcomes, going as far back as conception. This alludes to the cyclic nature of poor health seen within the black population. Systemic racism not only suppresses the quality of daily life of African Americans and withholds them from achieving upwards socioeconomic mobility, but also restrains them from being at their physical and mental best. This should be an alarming concern, as having good health should be regarded as a basic human right. Weathering offers a way for us to understand how racialized stress can negatively impact the black population and fortify recurrent poor health outcomes, even after accounting for the improvement of other environmental factors, such as education, income, and access to health care.
At the very core, the Black community should never have had to live their lives in a state of chronic stress. While it may take much more than legislation to address systemic racism, we should offer support for African Americans when and where we can, as they are unnecessarily burdened with the stresses of racism that jeopardize their very own lives, as well as those of future generations. To learn more about the Black Lives Matter movement and how you can show your support, we’ve also offered some helpful resources on our Facebook and Instagram pages.
Braithwaite, P. (2019, September 30). Biological Weathering and Its Deadly Effects on Black Mothers [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://www.self.com/story/weathering-and-its-deadly-effect-on-black-mothers
Geronimus A. T. (1992). The weathering hypothesis and the health of African-American women and infants: evidence and speculations. Ethnicity & disease, 2(3), 207–221.
Geronimus, A. T., Pearson, J. A., Linnenbringer, E., Schulz, A. J., Reyes, A. G., Epel, E. S., . . . Blackburn, E. H. (2015). Race-Ethnicity, Poverty, Urban Stressors, and Telomere Length in a Detroit Community-based Sample. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 56(2), 199-224. doi:10.1177/0022146515582100
Racial and Ethnic Disparities Continue in Pregnancy-Related Deaths. (2019, September 06). Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2019/p0905-racial-ethnic-disparities-pregnancy-deaths.html
Stress Effects on the Body. (n.d.). Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://www.apa.org/topics/stress-body
Tsai, H., Surkan, P. J., Yu, S. M., Caruso, D., Hong, X., Bartell, T. R., . . . Wang, X. (2017). Differential effects of stress and African ancestry on preterm birth and related traits among US born and immigrant Black mothers. Medicine,96(5). doi:10.1097/md.0000000000005899