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Racism Speeds the Aging Process

Update Date: Jan 07, 2014 03:47 PM EST

Black cracks with racism, a new study suggests. Scientists found that racial discrimination may accelerate aging at the cellular level in African-American men.

New research reveals that African-American men who report high levels of racial discrimination and internalized anti-Black attitudes are more likely to show signs of accelerated aging.

Previous studies revealed that African Americans have shorter life expectancy, and are more likely to develop aging-related illnesses at younger ages compared to Whites. Researchers said the latest findings suggest a link between accelerated aging and racism.

"We examined a biomarker of systemic aging, known as leukocyte telomere length," lead researcher Dr. David H. Chae, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Public said in a news release.

Previous studies have linked shorter telomere length to higher risk of premature death and disease.

"We found that the African American men who experienced greater racial discrimination and who displayed a stronger bias against their own racial group had the shortest telomeres of those studied," he added.

Past studies have found that the length of telomeres, which are "protective caps" at the ends of chromosomes, shortens progressively over time. However, the length can vary from person to person and can shorten more rapidly in people who experience psychosocial and physiological stress.

"Telomere length may be a better indicator of biological age, which can give us insight into variations in the cumulative 'wear and tear' of the organism net of chronological age," explained Chae.

The latest study involved 92 African American men between the ages of 30 and 50. They were asked about their experiences of discrimination in different settings, including work, housing, stores, restaurants and other public settings. Participants were also asked to complete the Black-White Implicit Association Test to measure their racial bias.

After adjusting for participants' age, socioeconomic factors and health-related characteristics, researchers found that the combination of high racial discrimination and anti-Black bias was associated with the shortest telomeres. However, the same was not true among those with pro-Black attitudes.

"African American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination," said Chae. "In contrast, those who have internalized an anti-Black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres."

Researchers stressed the need for more research to replicate the findings.

"Despite the limitations of our study, we contribute to a growing body of research showing that social toxins disproportionately impacting African American men are harmful to health," Chae concluded. "Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old."

The findings are published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

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