In recent years, health statistics have consistently shown that Black Americans are far more prone to wide range of medical problems than most other ethnic groups.
Not only do they have a 30 percent greater risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, but they twice as likely to develop diabetes and also have a much lower life expectancy than average. And despite efforts to reverse these trends, the problem appears to be getting worse.
Efforts at explaining these differences often focused on low income, unemployment, and living in high-crime areas, as well as lifestyle choices including higher rates of smoking, less exercise, and poor diet. Still, high rates of disease and disability have also been reported in middle and upper-class Blacks who live relatively advantaged lives. Since conventional risk factors aren't explaining these differences, more recent research has focused on the "weathering hypothesis" first developed by University of Michigan professor Arline Geronimus and her colleagues. According to this hypothesis, the poorer health outcome seen in Black Americans is a cumulative effect of the social, economic, and political exclusion they often experience.
This can include the emotional impact of the daily slights, systematic discrimination, and other risks faced by Black Americans on a daily basis. Research evidence supporting the weathering hypothesis suggests that these kind of stressors can trigger biological changes, including stress-related problems that can increase the risk of disease. One model which has shown promise in explaining why social adversity can affect health is the predictive adaptive response (PAR) model. According to this model, childhood and early adolescence are critical periods during which people learn to prepare for the future by developing cognitive and emotional skills.
Due to adverse environmental conditions such as abusive home environments or systematic discrimination however, young people often become more distrustful and vigilant due to the perceived threats around them. This also means becoming more sensitized to different life stressors as well as a hypersensitive immune system. As they grow older, this early adversity often means an elevated inflammatory response that can enhance the effect of adult stressors. As a result, they become more vulnerable to stress-related health problems.
To read more, check out my new Psychology Today blog post.