Racism and Health Disparities

In a report just released from the NIH, as many as 1 in 100 black men and women develop heart failure before the age of 50, which is 20 times the rate in whites in the same age group.  In public health terms, these racial differences in health are referred to as “health the human heartdisparities,” and the newly released report from the NIH raises questions about why there are such stark disparities across racial groups (Creative Commons License photo credit: derek*b).

According to the NIH, this sharp rise in heart failure is directly related to the increased levels of hypertension (aka, high blood pressure) for blacks.    There’s a growing body of scientific literature which points to the experience of racism as a major factor in elevated blood pressure, one of the leading risk factors for early heart failure.   David Williams was a pioneer in this field with his 2001 article, “Racism, discrimination and hypertension: evidence and needed research,” (Ethn Dis. 2001 Fall;11(4):800-16).  That piece spawned a bunch of others, including an excellent piece by Wyatt and colleagues entitled, “Racism and cardiovascular disease in African Americans,” (Am J Med Sci. 2003 Jun;325(6):315-31), which posits that there are three levels of racism that affect the cardiovascular disease (CVD) of African Americans, namely:

First, institutional racism can lead to limited opportunities for socioeconomic mobility, differential access to goods and resources, and poor living conditions that can adversely affect cardiovascular health. Second, perceived/personally mediated racism acts as a stressor and can induce psychophysiological reactions that negatively affect cardiovascular health. Third, in race-conscious societies, such as the United States, the negative self-evaluations of accepting negative cultural stereotypes as true (internalized racism) can have deleterious effects on cardiovascular health.

And, in a recent cross-sectional study that included African American men  (n = 393) and women (n = 717), researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill found that the likelihood of hypertension significantly increased with higher levels of perceived stress following racism from non-African-Americans.

While many people contend that racism is no longer a relevant or life-threatening issue,  this kind of evidence persuades me that addressing racism is more crucial than ever.