The effects of racism are far-reaching. It can stunt career growth and negatively impact victim behaviour and performance. Beyond that, several studies have found a link between racism and poor health outcomes.

One of those poor health outcomes, according to a new study, is hypertension or high blood pressure. In the U.S., Black Americans are disproportionately affected by it, and it can lead to heart disease, heart attack, and stroke. 

According to the American Heart Association, More than 40 per cent of non-Hispanic Black men and women live with high blood pressure and Black patients tend to develop it earlier in life.

Allana T. Forde, Ph.D., MPH, postdoctoral research fellow at the Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
copyright Leslie Durieux/AMA.

Previous studies focused on prevention through dietary changes. But a new study by the American Heart Association and led by Allana T. Forde, Ph.D., M.P.H., a postdoctoral research fellow at the Urban Health Collaborative at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, focuses on the link between a lifetime of exposure to racism and hypertension.

“Previous studies have shown that discrimination affects African Americans’ health; however, this research is one of the first large, community-based studies to suggest an association between discrimination over a lifetime and the development of hypertension among a large sample of African American men and women,” Dr. Forde said in a statement.

For the paper, Dr. Forde’s team analyzed data on 1,845 Black Americans aged 21 to 85, none of whom had hypertension during their first check-in, between 2000 and 2004.

Patients completed follow-up visits between 2005 and 2008 and again between 2009 and 2013. They reported discrimination events during interviews, questionnaires, and in-clinic exams.

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During the follow-up period 954, or 52 per cent, of the participants developed hypertension. Volunteers who reported medium levels of discrimination had a 49 per cent increased risk of hypertension when compared to individuals who reported low levels. 

“The study has important implications for patient care and population health,” Dr. Forde said. 

“Traditional risk factors, such as diet and physical activity, have been strongly correlated with hypertension, yet important psychosocial factors like discrimination, which also have the potential to negatively impact health, are rarely considered when evaluating the risk for hypertension among African Americans in health care settings.”

Dr. Forde says the findings highlight a need for health care professionals to understand that discrimination is a risk factor for high blood pressure.

“Our findings highlight the need for health care professionals to recognize discrimination as a social determinant of health. Health care professionals who understand the importance of unique stressors like discrimination that impact the health of African Americans will be better equipped to provide optimal patient care to this population.”


Dr. Forde isn’t the only researcher to call on health officials to recognize the link between racism and poor health.

“I believe racism and discrimination should be treated as a health risk factor – just like smoking,” writes April D. Thames, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who co-authored a 2019 paper showing racism promotes genes that turn on inflammation, a major driver of several diseases.

“It is toxic to health by damaging the natural defenses our bodies use to fight off infection and disease. Interventions tailored toward reducing racism-associated stress may mitigate some of its adverse effects on health. As a society, we cannot afford to perpetuate health inequities by undermining or disguising the biological impact of racism.”



 A 2019 survey finds that Black, Asian and Hispanic Americans are the most common victims of racism.

In a questionnaire filled out by 6,637 people, about three-quarters of Black and Asian American participants (76 per cent of each) and 58 per cent of Hispanics say they have experienced unfair treatment due to their race or ethnicity.

About two-thirds (or 67 per cent) of white participants said they have never been a target of racism.

When asked about specific situations, Black participants were more likely to say people acted suspicious of them, acted as if they weren’t smart, or recall being treated unfairly at work.

Asians were the most likely group to have been victimized by racial or ethnic slurs — and reports suggest this has increased dramatically since the start of the pandemic.

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