Weathering ages and harms people of color

Activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. worked tirelessly to ensure marginalized individuals obtain civil rights but are often gone too soon to realize the impact they have made in society. Dr. King was assassinated at 39 years old, but when pathologists completed his autopsy, they reported that his heart looked like one of a 60-year-old. After Eric Garner died due to police brutality, his daughter, Erica Garner became an advocate for the Black Lives Matter movement. Like Dr. King, she died too young, 27 years old, from a heart attack. This happened four months after she gave birth to her second child. Doctors noted that she had an enlarged heart, so they listed her death as a maternal death. Why did both Dr. King and Erica Garner both suffer from heart problems so young? These may be results of a phenomenon called weathering.

Coined by Dr. Arline Geronimus, weathering occurs when a person is constantly experiencing discrimination, racism and stress which can lead to premature aging of the body and negative health outcomes. In a previous blog, we discussed how weathering causes Black mothers to die because of racism and implicit bias. Weathering causes many other physical ailments.

Weathering, cortisol, and chronic health problems for people of color

Weathering and stress are often related. Persistent racism and discrimination can put a person into chronic stress, which can lead to a constant fight or flight mode. When someone is in fight or flight mode, their body hyperproduces high levels of cortisol and other hormones to allow the person to be on high alert. However, too many of these hormones are dangerous which prompts weight gain, high blood sugar, and high blood pressure. Because of chronic stress due to persistent racism and discrimination, a person of color is at greater risk for hypertension, type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Studies have shown that weathering leads to health problems among people of color. In one study, researchers examined how persistent racial discrimination predicted inflammation (their measurement of weathering), which led to chronic diseases for middle aged Black women over time. Women in this study rated how often they have experienced discriminatory events such as racial slurs, not being expected to do well because of their race, being discouraged to achieve a goal because of their race, and being harassed by the police. In addition, they drew blood to assess inflammation and asked if they had been previously diagnosed with chronic illnesses such as diabetes, liver disease, asthma, thyroid problems, and cardiovascular issues.

63% of women reported that at least two times a year people didn’t expect them to do well because of their race.

Based on racial discrimination, 63 percent of women reported that at least two times a year people didn’t expect them to do well because of their race and 33 percent reported that they were discouraged to achieve a goal due to their race (at least twice a year). Half of participants stated they were diagnosed with at least one chronic illness. Nearly 31 percent reported one illness, roughly 8 percent reported two illnesses, and around 8 percent reported three or more illnesses. As a result of the study, researchers concluded that chronic illness correlated with racial discrimination and inflammation. Likewise, racial discrimination was associated with inflammation.

COVID and discrimination

Everyone across the globe experienced the COVID-19 pandemic over the last three years, but people of color were impacted by it more due to racism and discrimination. Researchers observed how spatial segregation (a type of structural racism where there is a high population of a particular race in neighborhoods) with the intersection of citizenship status, family structure and employment contributed to the high COVID-19 death rates among the Hispanic population in New York City.

The findings? Spatial segregation positively correlates with a larger death rate among Hispanic people compared to the rest of the citizens of New York City. Hispanic men who spent more time in the United State have worse outcomes than those spending less time in the United States. Thus, Hispanic men who lived longer in the U.S. experienced more racism and discrimination, which lead to weathering and higher risks of dying from COVID-19.

Individuals must create policies that will improve education, socioeconomic stability and increase health care access for people of color

Are there solutions to address weathering?

Given how weathering negatively affects health outcomes for people of color, a person might ask themselves if there is even a solution to weathering. The answer is yes! For individuals who suffer from chronic stress because of weathering, meeting a mental health professional who knows the psychological effects of systemic racism can help address this issue on an interpersonal level. Another solution is to leverage influence and power at the federal, state and local levels to dismantle systemically racist constructs that prevent people from living with good health. In exchange, individuals must create policies that will improve education, socioeconomic stability and increase health care access for people of color.

In her book called Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society, Dr. Geronimus present some additional solutions to weathering. When creating new social policy proposals, she explains that we must consider if these policies will address the actual needs of those who are affected by weathering. Most importantly, we must prioritize equity in evaluating policy or program proposals. In a future blog, there will be a discussion on the five solutions to disrupt weathering according to Dr. Geronimus in detail from her book.