Discrimination during adolescence has lasting effect on body

September 9, 2015 by Julie Deardorff

In both blacks and whites, everyday feelings of discrimination can mess with the body's levels of the primary stress hormone, cortisol, new research suggests.

In African-Americans, however, the negative effects of perceived discrimination on cortisol are stronger than in whites, according to the study, one of the first to look at the biological response to the cumulative impact of prejudicial treatment.

The team of researchers, led by Northwestern University, also found that the teenage years are a particularly sensitive period to be experiencing discrimination, in terms of the future impact on adult cortisol levels.

"We found cumulative experiences matter and that discrimination mattered more for blacks," said study lead author Emma Adam, a developmental psychologist at Northwestern's School of Education and Social Policy.

"We saw a flattening of cortisol levels for both blacks and whites, but blacks also had an overall drop in levels. The surprise was that this was particularly true for discrimination that happened during adolescence."

The study will be published in the December 2015 issue of the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology and is currently available online.

In times of stress, the body releases several hormones, including cortisol. Ideally, cortisol levels are high in the morning to help energize us for the day. At night, cortisol levels wane as the body prepares for sleep.

Previous research indicates that discrimination can affect the natural rhythm of this process. Work by Adam and others suggests that young adults from racial/ethnic minority groups who perceive more discrimination have higher levels of cortisol in the evening and less decline in cortisol levels across the day than those with lower discrimination.

Having flatter or dysfunctional cortisol levels across the day is linked with higher fatigue, worse mental health, cardiovascular disease and mortality, as well as cognitive problems, such as impaired memory.

The latest study suggests for the first time that the impact of discrimination on cortisol adds up over time. Using data collected over a 20-year period, the researchers showed that the more discrimination people experience throughout adolescence and early adulthood, the more dysfunctional their cortisol rhythms are by age 32.

"We've been trying to solve the mystery behind why African-Americans have flatter diurnal cortisol rhythms than whites," said Adam, a faculty fellow at Northwestern's Institute for Policy Research.

"There's a fair amount of research on how discrimination affects people in the moment. But we haven't been sufficiently considering the wear and tear and accumulation of discrimination over lifetimes. Our study offers the first empirical demonstration that everyday discrimination affects biology in ways that have small but cumulative negative effects over time."

Even after controlling for income, education, depression, times of waking and other health behaviors, they still couldn't explain or remove the effects of discrimination, "making it unlikely that those other factors play a role," Adam said.

The researchers measured discrimination from ages 12 to 32, prospectively. They also assessed adult over a seven-day period. Using modeling, they determined the age range during which discrimination most dramatically affected cortisol.

"Adolescence might be an important time period because there are a lot of changes in the brain and body," Adam said. "When you experience perceived during this period of change, it's more likely that those effects are built into the system and have a bigger impact."

Explore further: Study shows direct link between ethnic discrimination and health

More information: Psychoneuroendocrinology, www.sciencedirect.com/science/ … ii/S0306453015008914

Related Stories

Study shows direct link between ethnic discrimination and health

January 8, 2015
New research from the University of Colorado Denver shows that women who experience racial discrimination while pregnant suffer significant health impacts that are passed on to their infants.

Saliva test for stress hormone levels may identify healthy older people with thinking problems

August 19, 2015
Testing the saliva of healthy older people for the level of the stress hormone cortisol may help identify individuals who should be screened for problems with thinking skills, according to a study published in the August ...

Back to school and back to sleep

September 3, 2015
Sleep matters for kids, especially when they are stressed. A new study led by researchers Jinshia Ly, Jennifer J. McGrath and Jean-Philippe Gouin from Concordia University's Centre for Clinical Research in Health and the ...

Discrimination is bad for your health – and your kids too

January 27, 2015
Think about the last time you left the house. Did strangers on the street acknowledge your presence with a smile or avert their glance? Chances are that the answer depended on your age, gender and, of course, your race.

Hair samples may offer new insights into the relationship between asthma, cortisol, and complications in pregnancy

July 29, 2015
Hair samples can be used to measure the effects of asthma on the cortisol levels of women during pregnancy, according to research presented today at the 2015 AACC Annual Meeting & Clinical Lab Expo in Atlanta. This research ...

Social-class discrimination contributes to poorer health: study

June 18, 2012
Discrimination felt by teenagers based on their social class background can contribute to physiologic changes associated with poorer health, according to a new study published online in Psychological Science, a journal of ...

Recommended for you

Anti-stress compound reduces obesity and diabetes

December 13, 2017
For the first time, scientists from the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich could prove that a stress protein found in muscle has a diabetes promoting effect. This finding could pave the way to a completely new treatment ...

Encouraging risk-taking in children may reduce the prevalence of childhood anxiety

December 13, 2017
A new international study suggests that parents who employ challenging parent behavioural (CPB) methods – active physical and verbal behaviours that encourage children to push their limits – are likely protecting their ...

Researchers link epigenetic aging to bipolar disorder

December 12, 2017
Bipolar disorder may involve accelerated epigenetic aging, which could explain why persons with the disorder are more likely to have - and die from - age-related diseases, according to researchers from The University of Texas ...

Researchers find common psychological traits in group of Italians aged 90 to 101

December 12, 2017
In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San ...

Twitter can reveal our shared mood

December 11, 2017
In the largest study of its kind, researchers from the University of Bristol have analysed mood indicators in text from 800 million anonymous messages posted on Twitter. These tweets were found to reflect strong patterns ...

Infant brain responses predict reading speed in secondary school

December 11, 2017
A study conducted at the Department of Psychology at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland and Jyväskylä Centre for Interdisciplinary Brain Research (CIBR) has found that the brain responses of infants with an inherited ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.