Higher levels of education may buffer negative health effects of racial discrimination: UC Berkeley

FILE ART - Commencement day at Howard University, May 7, 2016. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Less-educated African American women from the Bay Area who report experiencing high levels of racial discrimination may face greater risk of developing chronic diseases, according to a new study by UC Berkeley researchers.

But this trend was reversed for women who graduated high school and pursued more education, the study found. Higher levels of educational attainment may buffer some of the negative health effects of discrimination, the team found. While the relationship between racial discrimination and allostatic load also varied by poverty status, the trends were not as pronounced as they were for education level, the study found.

The researchers hypothesize that these differences may be partly attributed to how women with different educational levels interpret the racial discrimination they face.

“There are better health outcomes associated with those who attribute their racial discrimination experiences to systemic racism and do something about it as opposed to just accepting it and engaging in self-blame,” Marilyn D. Thomas, a doctoral candidate in epidemiology at Berkeley, told the university website. “Since we found that less-educated women were less likely to report racial discrimination, we suspect that those who have higher education may be more prepared to acknowledge and report racism versus internalizing it and blaming themselves.”

According to the university, this is the first study to examine the links between racial discrimination and allostatic load, a measure of chronic physiologic stress in the body that is a predictor of a variety of chronic diseases. It was published online in the October journal, Psychoneuroendocrinology,

A total of 208 middle-age women were given surveys rating their experiences of racial discrimination in different contexts, including finding housing, finding employment, at work, at school, getting credit for a bank loan or mortgage, and in healthcare settings. The team also gave each woman a physical exam, recording her height, weight, blood pressure, blood sugar and measures of inflammation and other health indicators that can contribute to allostatic load.

The researchers said that while education is a powerful predictor of health, it should not be seen as an antidote to the potential adverse health effects of racial discrimination.

“Racial discrimination has many faces. It is not being able to hail a cab, getting poor service in stores and restaurants, being treated unfairly at work, being treated unfairly by police and law enforcement and being followed around in stores because of racial stereotypes,” Amani M. Allen, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health sciences in UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, told the university website. “We found that experiencing racial discrimination repeatedly can create a state of biological imbalance that leaves certain groups of people more susceptible to chronic disease.”