The Situation of Racial Health Disparities
Posted by The Situationist Staff on December 28, 2007
The December issue of The Observer contains an article on James S. Jackson’s research on the (situational) sources of racial disparities in our healthcare system. We’ve excerpted a sample of that article below.
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The knowledge of racial inequities in America is hardly breaking news. Our country’s long history of segregation and discrimination continues to reverberate in many areas of our society. Nowhere are the effects of discrimination more evident than in the health status of black Americans. “Over the life-course, blacks, more than any other [racial] group, live the fewest years and a high proportion of those years are in poor health” said APS Fellow and Charter Member James S. Jackson during his James McKeen Cattell Fellow Award Address at the APS 19th Annual Convention. Jackson is leading the charge to understand and curb these differences. As a professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, he examines the health gap between African Americans and non-Hispanic Caucasians.
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In his talk, Jackson outlined some of his recent findings and provided hypotheses for the causes of racial health disparities. Throughout the lifetime, small group differences in genes, race, stress, and socioeconomic status have interacted to create interesting patterns in health disparities, said Jackson. Up until age one, death rates are much higher for blacks than for whites. The ultimate result is an African American population that is heartier than average, or “selected” in the evolutionary sense. African Americans who survive beyond infancy are much more resilient than their white counterparts, leading to a relative lull in health problems early in life. But as they age, the everyday stressors of being materially disadvantaged and geographically segregated begin to wear this resiliency down.
Jackson explained that “African Americans are suffering stressors over their life-course, but because they are more highly selected, they are able to resist those stressors in early years of life, but [health difficulties] arise because they can only suffer for so long.”
As stressors become overwhelming, individuals begin to utilize stress-coping mechanisms. Doctors and therapists preach that simple activities such as jogging or taking a swim are excellent remedies to alleviate such stress. But, as Jackson noted, it is considerably easier to instead reach for readily available junk food, cigarettes, or alcohol, especially in low-income areas where parks, pools, and gyms are likely to be unavailable. Exercise becomes an even less viable option as a person ages and the body begins to break down, further contributing to declining health in middle age.
Jackson’s resilience hypothesis falls in line with public health data: Rates of smoking, alcohol use, and obesity increase in later years of life, whereas vigorous activity declines precipitously.
He extends his perspective on racial health disparity to mental illness. . . .
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To read the rest of the article and more about Jackson’s fascinating research, click here. For a listing of numerous Situationist posts on the situational sources of obesity, click here. To review The National Healthcare Disparities Report, click here. And, to listen to an NPR story titled “Closing the Black Cancer Gap,” click here.