Surgeon General Warning

Discrimination May Be Hazardous​ to Your Health

Discrimination in many different forms seems to be an imminent health hazard. Experiencing race, gender, or weight discrimination carries risk for poor health outcomes. A growing body of evidence links chronic exposure to discrimination with stress, inflammation, sleep disturbance, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer risks.

Nothing New

W.E.B Du Bois concluded in 1906 “that the Negro death rate and sickness are largely matters of condition and not due to racial traits and tendencies.” Well before Du Bois, James McCune Smith – the first African American Medical Doctor – had documented the health consequences of slavery and freedom. Years later, Martin Luther King pointed to health disparities as “the most shocking and inhumane” among all forms of inequality.

Of course, data on the impact of gender and weight discrimination are more recent. Also more recent is the deepening understanding that discrimination fosters chronic stress. And that stress helps explain the link to health disparities.

Serious Clinical Impact

The MGH Weight Center in Boston evaluates and treats thousands of diverse patients with obesity every year. There, obesity medicine physician Fatima Cody Stanford sees the impact of living with prejudice daily. She tells us:

This growing body of evidence is quite compelling to me. In my clinical practice, I can see how this factor contributes to the disparity in obesity rates that African-American and Hispanic populations experience. Discrimination leads to stress. Stress leads to weight retention.

The data linking discrimination to poor outcomes bears watching. We hardly know all we need. Most importantly, we need a better understanding of interventions that will break this link. Without testing assumptions, finding real solutions will be nothing more than a matter of blind luck.

Click here for more from the New York Times. This supplement to the American Journal of Preventive Medicine offers a broad review of the health effects of social disparities and discrimination. For more research on the health effects of discrimination, click here and here.

Surgeon General Warning, photograph by Rex Miller, courtesy of the Duke Homestead and Tobacco Museum

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June 13, 2017