Human Nature

, Volume 21, Issue 1, pp 19–38 | Cite as

Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?

A Novel Theory and First Population-Based Test of Black-White Differences in Telomere Length
  • Arline T. GeronimusEmail author
  • Margaret T. Hicken
  • Jay A. Pearson
  • Sarah J. Seashols
  • Kelly L. Brown
  • Tracey Dawson Cruz


We hypothesize that black women experience accelerated biological aging in response to repeated or prolonged adaptation to subjective and objective stressors. Drawing on stress physiology and ethnographic, social science, and public health literature, we lay out the rationale for this hypothesis. We also perform a first population-based test of its plausibility, focusing on telomere length, a biomeasure of aging that may be shortened by stressors. Analyzing data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN), we estimate that at ages 49–55, black women are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women. Indicators of perceived stress and poverty account for 27% of this difference. Data limitations preclude assessing objective stressors and also result in imprecise estimates, limiting our ability to draw firm inferences. Further investigation of black-white differences in telomere length using large-population-based samples of broad age range and with detailed measures of environmental stressors is merited.


Health disparities Aging Stress Race/ethnicity Weathering Women’s health Poverty Telomeres 



Study analyses were supported by the National Institute on Aging (NIA), grants R01 AG032632 and T32 AG000221, and, through the Michigan Center on the Demography of Aging, grant AG012846. Support was also provided by the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University through a fellowship to Dr. Geronimus. The authors are also indebted to the SWAN Core Study and the SWAN Repository for collecting and providing access to study data, and to their sponsors, NIA, the National Institute of Nursing Research (NINR), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Office of Research on Women’s Health, and the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. We are grateful for helpful comments from Drs. John Bound, Oliver Smithies, and MaryFran Sowers, from four anonymous reviewers, and from participants at the 2007 Chicago Biomeasures Workshop sponsored by CCBAR and The MacLean Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at The University of Chicago, in collaboration with the National Institute on Aging. We thank Diane Laviolette for help with preparation of the manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Arline T. Geronimus
    • 1
    Email author
  • Margaret T. Hicken
    • 2
  • Jay A. Pearson
    • 3
  • Sarah J. Seashols
    • 4
  • Kelly L. Brown
    • 4
  • Tracey Dawson Cruz
    • 5
  1. 1.School of Public Health and Population Studies CenterUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  2. 2.Department of Health Behavior and Health EducationSchool of Public HealthAnn ArborUSA
  3. 3.Population Studies CenterUniversity of MichiganAnn ArborUSA
  4. 4.Department of Forensic ScienceVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA
  5. 5.Department of BiologyVirginia Commonwealth UniversityRichmondUSA

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