01/23/2014 06:17 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2014

Does Racism Accelerate Aging?

A new study asked whether racism accelerates aging for African-American men. The study measured age-related shortening in the ends of chromosomes (or telomeres). Surprisingly, the study found that experiences of racial discrimination were not related to biological aging.

Telomeres get shorter with age, so their shortness is considered a good measure of biological age, which could be younger, or older, than actual chronological age. Investigating telomere length as a function of social stressors, such as racism, thus offers a fascinating window through which to observe the impact of racism, or any other complex stressor, such as poverty, on premature aging.

What the Study Really Found

Discrimination is stressful, and stressful experiences are believed to accelerate biological aging. The study found that experiences of racial discrimination had no effect on telomere length. This is an astonishing negative finding.

Yet the lead author of the study, David Chae of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, said in an interview, "Our findings literally suggest that racism makes people old." By "racism" they mean how African Americans feel about their own group rather than discriminatory treatment by others.

The authors explain, "African-American men with an implicit bias against their own group may be compromised in their ability to psychologically manage or cope with stress resulting from racial discrimination." Conversely, "holding a pro-black bias may serve as a buffer against racial stressors."

In short, the study seems to concur with Hamlet's observation that "there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." If you think badly of your own ethnic group, you get old faster, it suggests. Who thinks badly about their own ethnic group? Probably people who are sick, depressed, or socially isolated -- or poor.

The Elephant in the Room

In contrast to the null results for racial discrimination, the study produced a large effect for poverty. Poverty is the elephant in the racism room.

So the real findings of the study are that poverty greatly accelerates aging, whereas internalized racial bias has minor effects, and experience of racial discrimination has no effect whatever.

Beginning With the Conclusion

The authors evidently began with the notion that racism makes people old and were determined to extract that conclusion from their results. That requires a certain flair for creative obfuscation.

Here is their conclusion:

Results suggest that multiple levels of racism, including interpersonal experiences of racial discrimination and the internalization of negative racial bias, operate jointly to accelerate aging among African-American men.

Racism is not the real issue here. Miserable living conditions whittle away at the telomeres, subtracting years from life expectancy for people close to the bottom of the ladder who feel badly about themselves. If living conditions are improved, a substantial increase in life expectancy will follow regardless of the color of a person's skin.

This is a really interesting study despite its small sample size and questionable focus on a single ethnic group. Yet the authors' interpretation of the data is unreliable. They court the headline that racism accelerates aging. Their actual finding is that biological aging is unaffected by discrimination (which is what racism means for most people).