Research reveals that years of discrimination are linked to high blood pressure for Black Americans

Even with the right policy prescriptions in place, racial discrimination will likely be around for many more years to come.

It’s an uncomfortable thought, but systemic biases are expressed daily on a continuum in America. On one end you’ll find stark cases like George Floyd’s, Kalif Browder’s, Breonna Taylor’s, or the men dubbed The Central Park Five.

On the other end, you’ll find the subtle ways 13% of the American public are reminded that the reason we were brought here is very different than the reason we were allowed to stay. This includes everything from the suppression of radical black voices, the emphasis on corrosive ones, the lack of diversity in certain industries, and the corporate gaslighting that blames this deficit on an inborn lack of initiative. 

Despite our imprint,  habitual racism and discrimination are atrophying the physiology of African Americans. The comorbidities linked to the community are often explained with a barrage of racist tropes masked as educated assumptions.

The truth is, America as a whole eats terribly, smokes, drinks, and succumbs to mental decline frequently, yet there’s an undeniable asymmetry when we factor in mortality statistics.

“African Americans have a higher risk of hypertension compared with other racial or ethnic groups in the United States. One possible explanation for this disparity is discrimination. Few studies have examined the association between discrimination and incidence of hypertension,” the authors of a new paper published in the Journal, Hypertension write. “We examined whether everyday discrimination, lifetime discrimination, and stress from discrimination were associated with incident hypertension and whether these associations differed by gender, age, discrimination attribution, and coping responses to discrimination among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Study.”

The observation period ran between 2000 and 2004.

At the start of the analysis, none of the participants involved exhibited any signs of high blood pressure. Between 2005  and 2008 and again between 2009 and 2013, each was asked to return for a checkup.

These followups included inquiries regarding their experiences with discrimination and racism via a series of home interviews, surveys, and in-clinic examinations.

During the entire follow up period, 52% (954) of the study pool developed high blood pressure.  Participants who reported medium levels of discrimination were 49% more likely to develop hypertension compared to participants who hadn’t experienced frequent instances of discrimination over the course of their life. This outcome remained consistent even after the researchers accounted for other relevant risk factors like diet and BMI.

For the sake of the study, adults were classified as having high blood pressure if they were taking any hypertension medication, had a systolic blood pressure reading of 140 mm Hg or higher, or displayed a diastolic blood pressure reading higher than 90 mm Hg during subsequent checkups.

“The study has important implications for patient care and population health,” explained first study author, Allana T. Forde, Ph.D., M.P.H., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University.“Traditional risk factors, such as diet and physical activity, have been strongly correlated with hypertension, yet important psychosocial factors like discrimination, which also have the potential to negatively impact health, are rarely considered when evaluating the risk for hypertension among African Americans in health care settings.”

When literal lynchings are motivating new dialogue around racial inequality, the micro contributors often fall by the wayside. Firing Hank Azaria, or adding an ebonics speaking catfish model to new episodes of Spongebob is not the kind of representation that actually does anything. In fact, these demonstrations are in and of themselves condescending when you think about the pressing socioeconomic deterrents keeping African Americans from gaining a footing in the country our ancestors helped build.

Currently, the COVID-19 pandemic is ravaging populations without healthcare, essential workers, and those living with preexisting conditions. Every one of these demographics houses a black populist. The stress of this truth alongside our choices in November is enough to adversely impact well-being.

For decades African Americans have been disproportionately affected by chronic conditions and scenarios that leave them vulnerable to early death but the research into the psychological correlates is only recently receiving academic attention.

Although the new report has yet to be validated by followup research, the authors are confident that their findings will highlight the less obvious manifestations of racial discrimination and the ways in which they pose harm to those affected. One hundred and fifty-seven years after receiving a freedom concession prize, African Americans are still owed the right to have our mental and physical health plights counted with everyone else’s.

“Our findings highlight the need for health care professionals to recognize discrimination as a social determinant of health. Health care professionals who understand the importance of unique stressors like discrimination that impact the health of African Americans will be better equipped to provide optimal patient care to this population,” Forde continues. “However, medical care is not enough. More broadly, our results suggest how social determinants such as racism and discrimination affect health in measurable ways. Addressing these factors is critical to reducing rates of chronic diseases.”