Many minorities suffer from high levels of chronic stress which over time exacts an emotional and physical toll
Different racial and ethnic groups in the United States suffer disproportionality from health problems.
For example, African Americans have higher rates of heart disease, Asian Americans have higher rates of stomach cancer, and Latinos have higher rates of diabetes than whites. New research points to the role chronic stress may play in health disparities and some experts now consider systremic racism to be a social determinant of health.
Some people call it the Black tax or the minority tax, said Gilbert Gee, professsor of public health at the University of California at Los Angeles or UCLA. A variety of studies show minorities are paying a price because of real and perceived discrimination in their lives, he said.
“If you are a person of color there are times when the stressors you face in your life are above and beyond the stressors that everybody encounters," Dr. Gee said.
Dr. Gee, who is also editor of the Journal of Health & Social Behavior, has studied Asian Americans to find out if over time the stress from discrimination is making them sick.
What he found is discrimination against Asian Americans is associated with a variety of problems ranging from heart disease, to respiratory problems and clinical depression.
“If you want to think about the idea much more broadly that racism is a toxin then you want to find examples where it’s not likely to happen. On first glance people will say Asians are seen as a model minority so maybe they’re less likely to get stressed out. The fact that we see all these things happening in Asians then strengthens the body of research for everybody else," Dr. Gee said.
This year, the American Psychological Association released results of a national online survey, Stress in America: The Impact of Discrimination. A total of 3,361 people in August 2015 filled out the online survey conducted by Harris Poll on behalf of the APA. The survey included all racial and ethnic groups including whites, said the APA's executive director for education, Dr. Jim Diaz Granados.
“We had almost half of all adults reporting major forms of discrimination such as being unfairly treated by law enforcement, being discouraged by teachers and by unfair treatment from health-care providers," he said.
Hispanics, blacks and Alaska Natives said they often had to prepare themselves to endure insults from people before leaving their homes – which increased their level of stress, Dr. Diaz Granados said. Hispanic respondents, however, reported higher stress levels on average than other groups.
“And they are more likely to say they can’t access a non-emergency doctor when they need one and that is going to result in a serious health disparity," he said.
Stress is a predictor of early mortality – too much stress and you take years off of your life, said Dr. Monica Hooper, director of the Office of Cancer Disparities Research at Case Western Reserve University. Discrimination and it’s link to stress is pervasive and it's real, she added.
“You know one thing I always say to people is if you have multiple people in a community but they are all reporting a similar phenomenon how can we deny that it’s real? How can we invalidate that person’s experience? That’s another factor that adds to the stress of individuals when they are repeatedly sharing their story and it is invalidated, it is ignored or it is told that this is just not happening," she said.
Many African Americans suffer from very high levels of chronic stress which over time exacts an emotional and physical toll. This can lead to other health problems such as heart disease and cancer, she said.