ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Maybe just knowing that someone else has experienced racial discrimination is bad for your health. Provocative new research raises that possibility. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein explains.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Doctors have known for a long time that African-Americans are more likely than whites to suffer from many diseases, including high blood pressure. Connie Mulligan of the University of Florida wanted to know how racial discrimination may be playing a role in that.
CONNIE MULLIGAN: Discrimination has been studied a lot for its effect on mental health. It's been less studied for its effect on physical health, something like blood pressure.
STEIN: So Mulligan and her colleagues studied more than 150 African-Americans living in Tallahassee. They analyzed their genes, measured their blood pressure and quizzed them about their experiences with racial discrimination.
MULLIGAN: Things got really interesting when we found that many, many people - well over half the people - would talk about experiences of discrimination that they themselves had not had but that people close to them had - their significant other, their parents, their kids, their friends, coworkers, that sort of thing.
STEIN: So the researchers looked at whether that kind of secondhand discrimination had any relationship to their blood pressure and to their genes.
MULLIGAN: What we found is a whole new class of genes that seem to interact with when people close to you are exposed to unfair treatment. That puts the individual at higher risk for high blood pressure.
STEIN: Genes that had already been shown to possibly play a role in emotional problems such as depression, anxiety and stress. Now, Mulligan doesn't know why secondhand discrimination would do this to people carrying these genes, but she has some theories.
MULLIGAN: It may be more distressful to hear about bad experiences happening to people close to you than experiencing them yourself. You might think, well, I'm tough; I can handle it, you know? I can handle whatever life throws at me. But you know, don't you do anything to my little girl.
STEIN: Mulligan isn't saying that other factors aren't important. Blacks have a harder time just getting access to good medical care than whites, for example. But Mulligan says the new findings suggest that there's more than that going on.
MULLIGAN: What I think is really exciting about our study is this idea of interactions between genetics and something like discrimination. That opens a whole new window in what might be causing racial disparities in disease.
STEIN: Now, some researchers are skeptical that Mulligan has made the case that these newly identified genes are really interacting with secondhand discrimination to affect blood pressure. And even if it turns out that that's true, Troy Duster of the University of California, Berkeley, questions how helpful that is.
TROY DUSTER: I don't see how this study helps us understand what anyone might do. If it's simply, quote, "a matter of genetic associations with perceived stress," what's the implication - that you want to perceive less stress (laughter)?
STEIN: But others argue the research provides an important new way to think about discrimination and health. Thomas McDade is an anthropologist at Northwestern.
THOMAS MCDADE: The study contributes to a growing body of research suggesting that unfair treatment and discrimination are important sources of stress and that these stressors have real physical health implications. So if we care about improving people's health, then one way to go is to try to reduce the burdens of stress and unfair treatment.
STEIN: But it's clear that a lot more research is needed to better understand the relationship between racial discrimination, genetics and health. Rob Stein, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.