Being the victim of racism is associated with a host of physical and mental problems, and now, it seems, that form of discrimination may also be implicated in causing people to age faster. A new study found that victims on the receiving end of repeated racism—and who internalized negative feelings about their own skin color—have shorter telomeres, the DNA caps that shorten over time and are linked to the aging process.
The researchers focused specifically on black men between the ages of 30 and 50. They recruited 92 subjects living around San Francisco. The men answered questions about racism they had experienced in their lives and also took an "implicit association" test that was meant to tease out their subconscious feelings about their race, Pacific Standard reports. Just six of the men said they had never experienced racism, while more than 85 percent said they had experienced racism at the hands of the police or legal system. Most felt positive about being black, but 37 percent suffered from an "anti-black bias," Pacific Standard says.
The team controlled for age, background and health and found that those who felt badly about being black had the shortest telomeres. Being a victim of racism, they found, did not have an impact on the telomere length—rather, it was the negative feelings themselves that were linked with the eroding telomeres. "African American men who have more positive views of their racial group may be buffered from the negative impact of racial discrimination," the authors said in a statement. "In contrast, those who have internalized an anti-Black bias may be less able to cope with racist experiences, which may result in greater stress and shorter telomeres."
This study brings further evidence to the scientific belief that "social toxins" such as racism have a very real impact on people's lives and health, the researchers write. Their conclusion: "Our findings suggest that racism literally makes people old."
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