Daily discrimination literally upping women’s blood pressure, study finds

New research suggests women’s exposure to daily discrimination may contribute to rising blood pressure over time, a risk factor that, if left untreated, can increase risk of heart disease and stroke.

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The study, published last month in the journal Annals of Behavioral Medicine, involves 10-year data on 2,180 self-identified white, black, Chinese, Japanese and Hispanic participants from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation, a longitudinal, epidemiologic study from the Epidemiology Data Center. Women in the SWAN study initially enrolled in 1996 participated in annual follow-ups for approximately two decades.

During the follow-ups, the women — middle-aged and from diverse racial groups — answered questions about their experiences with everyday discrimination in addition to undergoing basic health check-ups. “They ask how often people are insulted, threatened, or harassed in their day-to-day life; how often they’re perceived as dishonest, dumb, or scary; how often they get poorer service at restaurants and stores; and how often they’re treated with less courtesy and respect than others,” the Atlantic reported.

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Lead researcher Danielle Beatty Moody and her team found that women who said they experienced hints of discrimination “sometimes” or “often” had higher blood pressure than women who said they rarely experienced discrimination. After about one decade, women’s systolic blood pressure was two units higher, and their diastolic blood pressure, one unit higher. The difference may seem small, but even small differences can prove significant.

High blood pressure, which for decades has been a top reading of at least 140 or a bottom one of 90, dropped to 130 over 80 in advice announced last year by a dozen medical groups.

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The change means an additional 14 percent of U.S. adults have the problem. Poor diets, lack of exercise and other bad habits cause 90 percent of high blood pressure.

Currently, only half of Americans with high blood pressure have it under control.

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Women who experienced more discrimination were also more likely to gain weight, which is also linked to higher blood pressure. Moody told the Atlantic that this isn’t surprising, because discrimination adds to stress and “under stressful circumstances, we’re more likely to hold on to fat.” The researchers were able to account for body weight as a confounder, meaning that they reanalyzed their data by excluding volunteers who thought their physical appearance as a prominent reason for the discrimination. 

Moody told the Atlantic that seemingly small hints of everyday discrimination — such as  wolf-whistles, interruption while speaking, being told to smile more — are akin to “a thousand tiny cuts.”

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“Obviously, in a climate of #MeToo and sexual assault allegations and criminal findings against a host of people in public life, the effect of any discrimination against women should attract attention,” science journalist Emily Willingham reported about the study, which hasn’t gained much notice from media outlets. “Certainly, there are angles to women’s experiences of discrimination, past and present, and health effects over time.”

Moody’s study aims to address such health effects. But the negative impacts of discrimination are not new, she said. “We’re beyond the point of that. We’re now trying to ask: For whom, how, and why?” she told the Atlantic.

You can find the full study, currently behind a paywall, at academic.oup.com.

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