Racism may accelerate aging in African American men

January 16, 2014

A recent study reveals that racism may impact aging at the cellular level. Researchers found signs of accelerated aging in African American men who reported high levels of racial discrimination and who had internalized anti-Black attitudes. Findings from the study, which is the first to link racism-related factors and biological aging, are published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Amani Nuru-Jeter, associate professor of Community Health Sciences and of Epidemiology, is a coauthor of the study.

Racial disparities in health are well-documented, with African Americans having shorter life expectancy, and a greater likelihood of suffering from aging-related illnesses at younger ages compared to whites. Accelerated aging at the biological level may be one mechanism linking racism and disease risk.

“We examined a biomarker of systemic aging, known as leukocyte telomere length,” explained Dr. David H. Chae, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Maryland School of Public Health and the study’s lead investigator. Shorter telomere length is associated with increased risk of premature death and chronic disease such as diabetes, dementia, stroke and heart 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,” Chae explained.

Even after adjusting for participants’ chronological age, socioeconomic factors, and health-related characteristics, investigators found that the combination of high racial discrimination and anti-black bias was associated with shorter telomeres. On the other hand, the data revealed that racial discrimination had little relationship with telomere length among those holding pro-black attitudes.

“Discrimination, Racial Bias, and Telomere Length in African-American Men” was written by David H. Chae (University of Maryland, College Park); Amani M. Nuru-Jeter ( University of California, Berkeley); Nancy E. Adler, Jue Lin, Elizabeth H. Blackburn, and Elissa S. Epel ( University of California, San Francisco); and Gene H. Brody (Emory University). The study was supported by grants from the National Institute on Aging, the University of California, and Emory University.

Read more on the University of Maryland website