Things That Matter

New Study Shows That Racism And Discrimination Can Literally Break Your Heart

There is new evidence that people who suffer from racist attacks or discrimination also suffer physical health effects, in addition to well-known mental health issues. According to a recent study, feeling stigmatized, threatened or discriminated against correlates with an increased risk of heart abnormalities in Latinos.

The evidence also suggests that the stress associated with experiencing racism can have long lasting physical effects. So how do Latinos cope and what steps can healthcare professionals take to help our community?

Discrimination and racism is leading to serious health issues in Latinos.

According to a preliminary study by the American Heart Association, feeling stigmatized, threatened or discriminated against appears to lead to structural heart abnormalities in Latinos. Basically, putting up with constant discrimination is actually breaking hearts.

The study measured the left ventricle and atrial health of over 1,800 Latinos—including those born outside the U.S. or who predominantly speak Spanish—living in the Bronx, Chicago, Miami, and San Diego.

The study linked stigmatization and discrimination with with higher rates of left ventricle mass. People with an enlarged left atrium or ventricle usually suffer from conditions like high blood pressure and are more prone to have strokes.

Even something as simple and as common for many of us – like speaking Spanish in our everyday routines – can lead to increased risk for heart-associated health issues because of the related stress or fear we might have of being discriminated against.

“We need to look at discrimination as a stressor and a risk factor so we can identify individuals who are higher risk” of cardiovascular disease, one of the study’s authors, Jonathan Oxman, told the American Heart Association this week.

Stress as a result of racism can also lead to behaviors that may cause further risk to physical health. For example, research has found that discrimination is linked to higher rates of smoking, alcohol use, drug use, and unhealthful eating habits.

Racism is a public health threat for the entire country.

Medical professionals are beginning to recognize the negative effects of discrimination on physical wellbeing, and the American Medical Association has identified racism as a public health threat. And our physical health isn’t the only victim of discrimination.

Over 40% of Latino adults have reported symptoms of depression during the pandemic, in contrast to 25% of white non-Hispanics, the CDC reports. And all of this is compounded by the fact that Latinos are more reluctant to seek treatment. Reasons for this include barriers to health care and a lack of health insurance.

So how can we live healthfully while facing racism and discrimination?

BIPOC alone should not carry the burden of coping with racism. Everyone needs to address structural disadvantage, socioeconomic deprivation, and institutionalized racism to reduce discrimination. However, there is evidence to suggest that certain factors can help people cope with the negative effects of racism, both physically and mentally.

Many studies  have suggested that talking about racist experiences, instead of bottling them up, can help a person process feelings of stress, anger, and frustration. Similarly, engaging with — instead of ignoring — racism is likely to be beneficial.

There are also studies into racism and its effects on mental health that have found that BIPOC who felt strongly about their racial identity were less likely to be distressed by racism and less likely to be physically or mentally affected by it. Therefore, having a well-developed sense of ethnic or racial identity may help blunt or buffer the effects of racism.

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