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Discrimination speeds up aging at the molecular level

The unfairness of discrimination is obvious, but did you know it could also rob you of years of healthy life? A new study shows that experiencing prejudice can cause premature aging, increasing your risk of serious diseases and shortening your lifespan.

Discrimination: What it is and how it causes aging

We often hear about major discrimination – big, shocking events like being denied a job because of your race or being harassed due to your gender identity. But the study by NYU’s School of Global Public Health found that everyday slights (“microaggressions”), along with workplace bias, were also damaging. This includes:

  • Being treated with less respect than others: This could mean being ignored in meetings, having your ideas dismissed, or facing condescending comments laced with stereotypes. This constant undermining chips away at your confidence and sense of belonging.
  • Being unfairly passed over for opportunities: Imagine consistently being overlooked for promotions, training, or high-profile projects despite your qualifications. This not only limits your career growth but sends a crushing message that your contributions aren’t valued.
  • Feeling threatened or harassed due to your identity (race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.): Even if the harassment isn’t overt physical violence, it can take the form of offensive jokes, invasive questions, or exclusion from social groups. These experiences create a hostile environment where you feel unsafe and unwelcome, impacting your mental and physical health.

These seemingly subtle acts might be dismissed by some as “not a big deal” or told to “just get over it”. However, this study highlights the very real harm caused by this kind of persistent disrespect. The cumulative effect over time contributes to the stress that drives premature aging.

Premature aging: Discrimination’s hidden cost

The NYU study looked at over 2,000 adults and found a clear link: people who experienced more discrimination had signs of accelerated aging at the molecular level.

“Experiencing discrimination appears to hasten the process of aging, which may be contributing to disease and early mortality and fueling health disparities,” said Adolfo Cuevas, lead author of the study.

This doesn’t mean you’ll instantly get wrinkles, but it puts you at higher risk for age-related diseases like heart problems, depression, and more. It’s a heavy burden to carry.

Stress from discrimination and aging connection

Our bodies are amazingly resilient, but they’re not designed for constant stress. When we face threats (real or perceived),our bodies go into “fight-or-flight” mode. This ancient survival mechanism prepares us to handle danger by:

  • Increasing heart rate and blood pressure: This gets more oxygen to muscles for quick action.
  • Dumping stored energy: Sugars are released into the bloodstream for immediate fuel.
  • Suppressing ‘non-essential’ functions: Digestion and the immune system temporarily slow down.

This release of hormones like cortisol was originally designed for short bursts to escape a predator or fight off an attacker. But in modern life, our bodies can’t always tell the difference between a looming deadline and real physical danger.

This chronic stress leads to something called “biological aging,” where our bodies start to function like they’re older than our actual age. Here’s how:

  • Cellular damage: Cortisol and other stress hormones can damage cells and hinder DNA repair.
  • Inflammation: Constant ‘fight-or-flight’ mode triggers low-grade inflammation throughout the body, linked to many chronic diseases.
  • Weakened immune system: Stress takes a toll on our ability to fight off infections and diseases.

Discrimination is a powerful stressor because it hits our core need for safety, belonging, and respect. This constant strain eats away at our health on a cellular level, making us biologically ‘older’ than our years.

Race matters

The study revealed a troubling trend: Black participants reported experiencing more discrimination and exhibited signs of faster biological aging compared to White participants. This highlights the persistent social inequalities that lead to a greater burden of discrimination for Black Americans.

However, the study also found a seemingly contradictory result. White participants who did experience discrimination showed a potentially stronger negative impact on their biological aging. Researchers hypothesize a few reasons for this.

Black participants might have faced more frequent and low-level (“microaggressions”) discrimination throughout their lives. This constant drip of stress may have a cumulative effect, leading to a higher overall level of biological aging. 

In contrast, White participants who experienced discrimination may have had fewer encounters, making it a more acute stressor with a potentially more intense impact.

Facing prejudice

Living in a society where you face regular prejudice might lead some people to develop coping mechanisms to manage the stress. 

Black Americans may have had more experience navigating these situations, while White participants who rarely experience discrimination might lack established coping strategies.

Additionally, studies suggest that strong social support networks can buffer the negative effects of stress. Black communities often have a rich tradition of social support, which might help to mitigate the impact of discrimination on biological aging.

It’s important to note that these are potential explanations, and further research is needed to fully understand the complex reasons behind this disparity.

“These findings underscore the importance of addressing all forms of discrimination to support healthy aging and promote health equity,” noted Cuevas.

Fighting back: Change starts with us

This research is sobering, but it’s also empowering. Here’s what we can do:

Challenge our own biases

We all have biases that can influence our thoughts and actions. Take time to reflect on unconscious prejudices and work to unlearn them. Educate yourself on different perspectives and engage in conversations that promote understanding and empathy.

Speak up

When you witness discrimination, safely call it out. Be an ally by supporting those affected and advocating for inclusive behavior. It’s crucial not to remain silent or passive when someone is being mistreated.

Support anti-discrimination efforts

Contribute your time or resources to organizations that combat discrimination and fight for equality. Volunteering or donating to these groups helps amplify their impact and furthers the cause.

Manage stress

While discrimination can be a significant source of stress, it’s important to address other stressors that are within our control. Find and practice healthy coping techniques like exercise, meditation, or talking to friends to reduce overall stress levels.

Imagine a world where everyone is treated with respect, regardless of how they look or who they love. It’s not just a moral issue – this study suggests it’s a matter of life and death. By working together, we can create a society where everyone has a chance to live a long and healthy life.

The study is published in the journal Brain Behavior & Immunity – Health.


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