Washington: A recent study explains how racial discrimination raises the risks of chronic illness among African Americans. A team of researchers found that racist experiences appear to increase inflammation in African American individuals, raising their risk of chronic illness.
"We know discrimination is linked to health outcomes, but no one was sure exactly how it harmed health. I looked at it as a chronic stressor. Our results showed that racial discrimination appears to trigger an inflammatory response among African Americans at the cellular level," said April Thames, one of the lead researchers.
The survival of all living things depends on their ability to respond to infections, stresses and injuries. Such threats trigger an immune system response to fend off pathogens and repair damaged tissues. A select group of genes are key to this defence mechanism, and inflammation is a sign that those genes are working to counter the threat or repair the damage, the researchers explained.
Inflammation serves to protect an organism from a health threat. But if someone feels under threat for long periods of time, their health may suffer significantly with chronic inflammation.
"If those genes remain active for an extended period of time, that can promote heart attacks, neurodegenerative diseases, and metastatic cancer," says co-author Steve Cole.
For the study, published in the Journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology, Thames and her co-authors focused on a group of 71 subjects: two-thirds of them were African Americans; the others were white.
In addition, 38 of the participants were positive for HIV. Their participation gave scientists a chance to study the effects of racism independently from the effects of the disease.
The scientists extracted Ribonucleic acid (RNA) from the participants' cells and measured molecules that trigger inflammation, as well as those involved in antiviral responses. The research team found higher levels of the inflammatory molecules in African American participants.
The results also indicate that racism may account for as much as 50 per cent of the heightened inflammation among African Americans, including those who were positive for HIV.
The scientists made sure that all the participants had similar socioeconomic background to account for financial stressors, which eliminated poverty as a potential factor for chronic inflammation among the people in the study.
"Racial discrimination is a different type of chronic stressor than poverty. People navigate poverty on a day-to-day basis and are aware that it is happening. They might even be able to address financial stressors through job changes, changes in earnings and financial management. But with discrimination, you don't always realize that it's happening," Thames explained.