Racial Discrimination, Inflammation, and Chronic Illness Among African American Women at Midlife: Support for the Weathering Perspective

Abstract

It is widely accepted that socioeconomic status (SES) is a fundamental cause of health inequality. There is evidence, however, that race is also a fundamental cause of disparities in health. Based on this idea, the weathering hypothesis developed by Geronimus and her colleagues views the elevated rates of illness and disability seen among Black Americans as a physiological response to the structural barriers, daily slights, and other threats to identity that comprise the Black experience. The current study tests the weathering hypothesis using chronic inflammation as an indicator of biological weathering. Specifically, we examine the extent to which persistent exposure to racial discrimination predicts elevated inflammation and, in turn, diagnosed chronic illness, after taking into account SES and several control variables. This mediation model was tested using zero-inflated Poisson path modeling with five waves of data collected from 391 African American women participating in the Family and Community Health Study (FACHS). A 13-item index was used to assess exposure to racial discrimination across 8 years. ELISA blood assays of seven cytokines central to the inflammatory response were used to construct an inflammatory index. Respondents reported their diagnosed chronic diseases. Consonant with the weathering hypothesis, persistent exposure to discrimination predicted inflammation which, in turn, predicted number of chronic diseases. This indirect effect was statistically significant. SES predicted having a chronic disease and the various controls showed no effect. The findings support the idea that race, like SES, is a fundamental cause of health inequalities.

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Funding

This work was supported by the National Institute on Aging (R01 AG055393), the National Heart, Lung, Blood Institute (R01 HL118045), the National Institute on Child Health and Human Development (R01 HD080749), the National Institute on Drug Abuse (R21 DA034457), and the National Institute of Mental Health (R01 MH62699, R01 MH62666). The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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Correspondence to Ronald L. Simons.

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Simons, R.L., Lei, MK., Klopack, E. et al. Racial Discrimination, Inflammation, and Chronic Illness Among African American Women at Midlife: Support for the Weathering Perspective. J. Racial and Ethnic Health Disparities (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40615-020-00786-8

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Keywords

  • Racial discrimination
  • Inflammation
  • African American women
  • Social determinants of illness