Study reveals physiological effects of discrimination on African-American adolescents

A recent study by University of Nebraska-Lincoln Associate Professor of Sociology Bridget Goosby shows discrimination can have a profound effect on the cardiovascular health of African-American adolescents. (Photo courtesy of UNL)
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April 30, 2015 - 6:44am

More questions are being raised regarding discrimination in the United States. NET News' Ben Bohall talked with Bridget Goosby, the author of a new study uncovering how discrimination against African-American adolescents can have lasting effects - both mentally and physiologically.

NET NEWS: How did this study begin and what was the intent in conducting it?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRIDGET GOOSBY: The research itself emerged out of my interest in understanding how social stressors such as economic and social inequality get under the skin and make people sick. I’ve spent the last few years learning about the role of stress and altering health outcomes and wanted to link that knowledge with my interest in studying minority and low-income population health outcomes.

NET NEWS: While current research shows us that discrimination can lead to unhealthy habits like smoking or alcohol abuse, you’re looking at the direct, physiological health effects of discrimination. One way of measuring that was looking at adolescents’ blood pressure and the other way was by checking levels of C-reactive protein. What is that and how does it act as a marker?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRIDGET GOOSBY: C-reactive protein is a marker that’s increasingly becoming more common when we look at risk of cardiovascular disease. So while C-reactive protein in kids is not necessarily that normally collected, for those of us that are adults that tends to be a measure or marker of inflammation in the body. So when we experience stress and any sort of wound healing, C-reactive protein is one of the markers that’s indicating that your immune system is functioning and trying to get you prepared for stressful or harmful situations. High levels of C-reactive protein are also indicators of that inflammation being a risk for cardiovascular disease later on. The fact that we found any indication that C-reactive protein was associated with social markers that young is something that is pretty new and to our knowledge hasn’t been established before. Particularly when it comes to discrimination.

NET NEWS: What prompted your team to target that age group then of 10-15 years-old?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRIDGET GOOSBY: That’s beginning to get to an age where developmentally, you really begin to acknowledge and recognize when you’re being treated unfairly. It’s a time when young people can begin to verbalize some of those experiences so the focus tends to be the discrimination outcomes, looking at adult populations with these particular markers. But it could be that the impacts of discrimination start much earlier in the life course.

NET NEWS: In a study such as this, how do we separate discrimination from what might just constitute the normal stressors on any young adolescents’ life?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRIDGET GOOSBY: One of the things that’s important to think about when we think about discrimination is that any sort of unfair treatment is going to be harmful to everyone. No one likes to be treated unfairly and the experience itself can created a stressed reaction as a result of that. The difference with African-American youth relative to Caucasian youth is the persistence and severity of the experience of discrimination. It’s not necessarily that all youth don’t experience feelings of unfair treatment, it’s just that the severity and the frequency with which African-American youth experience it is comparatively higher.

NET NEWS: What do you think these findings will ultimately do for us moving forward- maybe in a societal manner- in that it’s made us more aware?

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR BRIDGET GOOSBY: I think that one of the things that becomes really important is the fact that we see the gap in health disparities among African-Americans and other groups has not been shrinking. African-Americans represent the highest levels of hypertension in the world, actually. They have high rates of diabetes. They’re more likely to die of cardiovascular disease earlier, on average. A lot of times, there’s a discussion around the ways that people manage stress tend to be through health risk behaviors. But the health disparities also come from inequities and access to care. But even after you account for that you still have these differentials that don’t go away. What this is showing is providing evidence that experiences of discrimination matter early in the life course and if we want to intervene in terms of addressing health disparities, we need to begin to recognize what ways we can actually intervene in the early life course to offset the stress of experiencing being a part of a marginalized group and being discriminated against on a regular basis. A lot of times there’s talk that it’s all in a person’s head. What we’re showing here is that the experience matters and it literally can alter your physiology.



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