A new study shows that the negative effects of discrimination and racism can last a lifetime, beginning when a child is still in the womb.
Black women in America are over twice as likely as white women to give birth to babies with low birth weight, and socioeconomic and healthcare disparities don’t fully explain the difference. Since low birth weight can predispose people to lung disease, cardiovascular problems, and diabetes later in life, researchers have been looking for a reason why it’s linked to race. Now a study reveals one answer: discrimination against women can actually affect the weight of their babies.
The study, published online in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine published findings by Valerie Earnshaw and her colleagues from Yale University. Their findings, after interviewing more than 1,000 black and Latina girls and women between the ages of 14 and 21, suggest that chronic, everyday instances of discrimination against pregnant, urban women of color may play a significant role in contributing to low birth weight babies. Medical News Today says low birth weight can result in fetal and prenatal morbidity, suppressed growth and slower cognitive development and chronic diseases later in the baby’s life.
The good news: across the board, the women reported relatively low levels of discrimination. However, even those low levels were associated with a significantly increased risk of low birth weight. That was true whether the women felt the discrimination was motivated by race or other factors.
The study also suggests one possible explanation for the harm discrimination might do to a developing fetus. Women who experienced more discrimination were also more likely to be depressed, and depression — both in this study and in previous research — has been found to be associated with low birth weight. Earnshaw says that by treating pregnant women’s depression, healthcare providers and social workers might be able to lessen the effects of discrimination.
Many studies, including a new one on ten-year-olds have found significant health disparities between white Americans and minorities, extending throughout life. Some have attributed these disparities to income, but other research [PDF] suggests that’s not the only factor. And discrimination has been shown to harm physical and mental health as well. According to Earnshaw and her coauthors, that harm may begin not just with children’s first experiences of prejudice, but with what their mothers go through before they’re even born.
This results of this study confirm what Ziba Kashef of ColorLines RaceWire.com wrote nearly a decade ago about the disproportionately high number of black babies who are born with a low birth weight:
While many ob/gyns and health experts point to causes like the timing of prenatal care or unequal health insurance access, others are asking broader questions about race, racism, and health.
Back then, Dr. Michael Lu, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology and public health at UCLA, said researchers have found that even when they control for such varied factors as poverty, housing, employment, medical risk, abuse, social support and so on, 90 percent of the differences in birth weight between black and white moms remains unaccounted for.
One thing they found back then seems to be confirmed now and that’s the fact that protective effects of culture and close familial and community ties serve as a buffer to stress and racial discrimination.
Maybe the key to having more healthy babies in the Black community is to spend a substantial amount of time in an environment where racial discrimination is unlikely.
What do you think about this study? Have you ever felt you were a victim of discrimination there were depressed as a result?
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