(Trice Edney Wire) – Racial discrimination experienced by youth can have far-reaching health impacts well into their adulthood—and that is especially true for Black adolescents, new research out of Northwestern University concluded.
“There’s sometimes a tendency to say, ‘Oh, they are just kids—they will get over it,’” developmental psychologist and head researcher Emma Adam told Mother Jones. “But it turns out there can be lasting impact.”
The study was one of the first to look at the physiological impacts of prejudice and found that discrimination disrupts the body’s levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol. When the body is in its natural rhythm, cortisol levels tend to be higher in the morning to rev up the body for the day, and wane as bed time approaches. However, among those who perceive higher racial/ethnic discrimination, cortisol levels see flatter declines during the day and remain higher in the evening than among those who face less discrimination.
Such dysfunctional cortisol levels can result in conditions such as higher fatigue, mental and cognitive problems such as impaired memory, cardiovascular disease and death, according to the study. And these effects can add up over time.
Researchers used data from the Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study, a 20-year research project comprising Black and White participants from various socioeconomic backgrounds. It found that adolescents and young adults who experienced more discrimination presented more dysfunctional cortisol rhythms by age 32.
The phenomenon was especially pervasive among African Americans, even after controlling for other stressors, such as income, education, depression, times of waking and other health behaviors.
“We’ve been trying to solve the mystery behind why African-Americans have flatter diurnal cortisol rhythms than whites,” Adam, a faculty fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research, said in a statement. “There’s a fair amount of research on how discrimination affects people in the moment. But we haven’t been sufficiently considering the wear and tear and accumulation of discrimination over lifetimes. Our study offers the first empirical demonstration that everyday discrimination affects biology in ways that have small but cumulative negative effects over time.”
The study will be published in the December 2015 issue of the journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology.