Exploring the Link Between Racism and Ill Health

Tufts psychology researchers get $2.7 million to map the pathways between experiencing racism-induced stress and developing disease

Stress has been widely shown to harm people’s health by leading to problems such as cardiovascular disease, but how exactly different types of stress contribute to disease is less well known. Now a team of Tufts psychology researchers is focusing on stress caused by racism, tracking its neurological and other physiological pathways to ill health, thanks to a five-year, $2.7 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The impetus for the study was the racial reckoning following the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and others, says Sam Sommers, a professor who uses experimental social psychology to study racism, racial equality, and group diversity.

He and Lisa Shin, a professor of psychology who studies the pathways of post-traumatic stress disorder in the brain, started talking during the pandemic about ways in which they could combine their skills “to better understand the effects that lived experiences with anti-Black racism have on the mind, the brain, the body,” Sommers says. They did initial research with the help of a 2021 Tufts Springboard grant, allowing them to conceive the larger research project.

More recently they were joined by Aerielle Allen, an assistant professor of psychology who started at Tufts this fall. Allen’s expertise includes racial disparities in health, the psychology of systemic racism, and physiological data collection.

“All three of us are scientists who are very much interested in studying issues that matter in the real world, whether psychopathology and struggles with mental disorder, trauma and stress in daily life, or racism and other forms of discrimination,” says Sommers. “This was an opportunity to bring all that together and apply what we do as scientists to this really important real-world problem.”

Experiencing racial discrimination can be a chronic stressor “that over time can contribute to increased activation of the sympathetic nervous system and can set off a cascade of events that could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and a variety of different kinds of conditions,” Shin says. “With this project, we’re trying to understand the mechanisms that may kickstart this cascade.”

Measuring Stress

For the study, the researchers will recruit people who identify as Black, and in controlled experiments will have them recall specific instances in which they experienced racial discrimination in any form, measuring a variety of physiological states, while controlling for the effects of other health behaviors.

This protocol for examining bodily changes in response to recalling memories has been used by many other researchers to study emotion, including a modified version to study people with PTSD “or really anybody who’ve experienced traumatic stress-related events,” Shin says.

Among the tests related to the recall experiments will be neuroimaging studies of stress-related neurocircuitry and its relationship to physiological outcomes. Another will measure biological stress using hair cortisol. Cortisol is a stress hormone and its presence in hair is a biomarker for certain kinds of stress, and measuring it is not invasive, unlike other tests.

The researchers will also study participants’ telomeres, essentially protective caps on the ends of chromosomes whose length is associated with age and stress and diminishes over time. “Telomere length . . . is thought to contribute to age-related disease states, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer,” the researchers write. “Shorter telomere lengths have been associated with stress, early life adversity, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and experiences with racism.”

Allen notes that the results of the study necessarily will show the variability of the participants’ experiences. “Still, I think just being able to speak to some of the patterns of effects that different levels of racism have will demonstrate that in various ways, racism is a public health crisis,” she says.

Responses given by initial study participants have been positive. “It’s not easy to ask people to come in and relive some of the more distressing, upsetting aspects of their lives with strangers,” Sommers notes. “But a lot of these participants who’ve come through the initial stages of the preliminary work for this study have expressed gratitude that scientists are taking racism seriously and treating it as the public health and personal stressor that it is.”

A Team Effort

Among the first steps for the researchers is recruiting people to take part in the study. The team will be putting up flyers and advertising for volunteers on Craigslist and elsewhere. They will also contract with a firm to recruit participants.

To help with the project, the researchers will bring on board a postdoctoral scholar, graduate students, and a number of undergraduates. One of the goals of their hiring is to provide research and professional development experience for early career researchers, particularly from traditionally underrepresented and minoritized groups, the researchers write.

Other researchers involved in the study are Heather Urry, professor of psychology; Felipe Dias, assistant professor of sociology; Adolfo Cuevas, formerly of Tufts and now an assistant professor at the New York University School of Global Public Health; and Jasmine Mote, formerly of Tufts and now a research assistant professor at Boston University.

Allen says that students in the Black Psychology course that she is teaching this fall voice concerns about structural issues around racism, but also want to believe that something positive can be done at the individual level. “I see that being where I come in, where we might be able to intervene, especially as psychologists,” she says, “trying to be a bridge between how we can understand these processes at the individual level while still speaking to these more structural and systemic implications.”

Although the study conclusions are five years off, the researchers see significant possible benefits. “There are implications here potentially for how psychologists, physicians, and others think about racism and trauma and stress,” says Sommers.

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