Tene Lewis explores relationship between cardiovascular disease and racism in African-American women

Monday, January 14, 2019 - 6:45pm

Emory University Epidemiology prof. Tene T. Lewis speaks about discriminator stressors and early markers of cardiovascular disease in African-American women during the Race, Health, and Wealth Disparities seminar series.

Emory University Epidemiology prof. Tene T. Lewis speaks about discriminator stressors and early markers of cardiovascular disease in African-American women during the Race, Health, and Wealth Disparities seminar series. Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily

Dr. Tene Lewis, a University of Michigan alum and professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, spoke Monday on the relationship between discrimination and cardiovascular disease among African-American women. The presentation was the first in the Research Center for Group Dynamics seminar series, in which notable researchers speak about interdisciplinary social issues like race.

Lewis opened her talk by describing her field of interest, which combines psychology, epidemiology and cardiology. Her research centers around poor health outcomes within the African-American community as opposed to other racial and ethnic groups.

“If you are born African-American in this country, you will live sicker and die younger than your white counterparts,” Lewis said.

Lewis focused on the relationship between reported accounts of racism and discrimination from African Americans and indications of poor cardiovascular health such as coronary artery calcium, which hardens the walls of the arteries.

“Chronic reports of everyday discrimination are associated with the occurrence of coronary artery calcium in African Americans and not whites,” Lewis said.

Lewis said racial discrimination impacting African American woman, causes unhealthy plaque buildup inside the artery wall called carotid atherosclerosis.

“The more expectations of racism women had, the more carotid atherosclerosis they had,” Lewis said. “For whatever reason, reports of racism experiences weren’t as strongly associated with outcomes in African-American women.”

Public Health doctoral student Traci Carson expressed interest in the study after the event. Carson said she wants to delve further into combating the physical effects of discrimination.

“I’m really interested in the physiological stress work that she does even though my research is a different area,” Carson said. “I’ve been really inspired by Tene’s work because of my colleagues in public health who do work really specific to her field.”

Despite the consistent negative effects of discrimination in relation to cardiovascular health, Lewis said the overall levels of reported discrimination were lower than expected. It is unclear whether the levels are lower due to a lack of reporting or an actual decrease in racist incidents.

“Across studies, reports of discrimination are actually relatively low,” Lewis said. “On average, people are not reporting a lot of these experiences.”

Lewis further explained her discovery that everyday discrimination may not impact African-American women as much as expectations of racism, due to prolonged stress.

“Expectations of racism are a potentially relevant stressor for African-American women and they are primarily driven by an awareness of racism,” Lewis said. “There is research that suggests that African Americans have a more accurate knowledge of racism-related occurrences in U.S. history than whites, and they’re also aware of negative stereotypes about their group.”

In order to alleviate some of the stress of anticipated discrimination, Public Health doctoral student Alexis Reeves said she believes it is important to think about the holistic experience of being a minority group.

“I think that the experience of being a social racial group in the U.S., in particular, is multifaceted and the current literature really just captures only racial discrimination at the interpersonal level,” Reeves said. “There’s a lot of different experiences, like vigilance and rumination about the experiences that you’ve had, or anticipation, like they talked about, or experiencing your family or your friends going through racist experiences that do affect physical and mental health, that really are just not accounted for in the literature currently.”

Lewis concluded by discussing the next steps for her research.

“Understanding the role of vicarious racism and racial socialization will also be important. … We want to look at the extent to which socialization fuels some of the expectations that we see,” Lewis said. “Also, we want to begin to identify resilience factors.”

Lewis ended her presentation with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr:

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”