Stress of racism can affect health across generations

Chronically high levels of stress can wreak havoc on bodily systems from the brain to the heart, and accelerate the pace of biological aging, according to experts. For people of color, race-based stressors can take a heavy toll on health for a lifetime—and even across generations, explained Natalie Slopen, assistant professor of social and behavioral sciences at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in a March 12, 2021 Q&A in Fatherly.

For example, she said, high levels of inflammation, found in children from disadvantaged racial and ethnic minority populations, can be a precursor to chronic disease later in life. And research suggests that trauma can be passed down biologically, perhaps through epigenetic markers, Slopen said.

Reducing the harmful health effects of race-based stressors can’t be limited to the individual level, Slopen said. “We need to take a prevention-oriented approach, where we restructure these systems that are unfair and lead to inequitable outcomes across groups,” she said. “So our approaches need to target those broad social factors that are driving these mechanisms in the first place.”

Read the Fatherly Q&A: How racism holds kids back