Expectations of racism may be linked to cardiovascular disease in African-American women

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | March 12, 2013


Melva Robertson

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"We know that chronic stress may be an important contributor to cardiovascular disease," says Tené T. Lewis.

Tené T. Lewis, PhD, associate professor in the department of Epidemiology at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health conducted a preliminary study examining the link between the stress induced by expectations of racism and early cardiovascular disease in African-American women.  The findings suggested that the higher the level of expected racism, the more carotid artery intima-media thickness (IMT) -- or abnormal thickening in the walls of the arteries. High levels of IMT are linked to high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. 

Lewis will present these findings at the American Psychosomatic Society’s Annual Meeting on Saturday, March 16, 2013, in Miami.

"As a result of the very real history of racism in this country, most African-Americans have an awareness of racism that causes them to be vigilant in situations where racist events have been known to occur," Lewis said. “We know that chronic stress may be an important contributor to cardiovascular disease.” 

"So, for example, if you are an African-American woman and you know that African-American women have been targets of racial profiling in certain retail settings, you may be hyper aware of a potentially racist encounter while shopping.  Even if nothing actually happens while you're there -- if you've spent your entire time in the store expecting racism, your body is experiencing chronic stress."

Lewis and colleagues examined the association between expectations of racism, experiences of racism and IMT in 54 healthy African-American women between the ages of 30-50.  Expectations of racism were associated with IMT even after taking into account actual experiences of racism, as well as cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood pressure and obesity.

“We’ve learned a lot over the past decade about actual experiences of racism and health, but we don’t know very much about how expectations of racism impact health,” says Lewis.  “Our findings are preliminary but they provide a strong foundation for next steps in furthering our understanding.”