Previous studies have found more instances of high blood pressure, obesity, cardiovascular problems, poor self-reported health and premature disease-related disability in the African American population than in other races. A new study by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), National Institutes of Health suggests a link between these health problems and the psychological stress caused from racial discrimination.

Researchers asked 629 participants how much prejudice or discrimination they had experienced because of their race while also measuring “oxidative stress by determining the level of degradation products in red blood cells,” according to a press release. Oxidative stress is “the process by which free radicals, or reactive oxygen species, damage cellular components including DNA, proteins and lipids.”

The researchers already knew of a casual correlation between oxidative stress and psychological stress but wanted to see if race could also act as a stressor:

“Overall, African Americans reported more racial discrimination than Whites and more oxidative stress originating from their red blood cells as measured by a novel marker. In addition, African Americans who reported suffering from racial discrimination had higher levels of oxidative stress than those who had not experienced prejudice. Discrimination was not linked to levels of oxidative stress in Whites.”

According to the authors, “This is a preliminary report of an association between racial discrimination and oxidative stress. It is a first step to understanding whether there is a relationship between the two. Our findings suggest that there may be identifiable cellular pathways by which racial discrimination amplifies cardiovascular and other age-related disease risks. If increased red blood cell oxidative stress is associated with experiencing racial discrimination in African Americans, this could be one reason that many age-associated chronic disease have a higher prevalence in this group.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.

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