A recent study of Detroit residents by a joint collaboration of University professors, professors from other universities and the Detroit Hispanic Development Corporation has gotten national attention for its findings.
The study found urban environments in which the chronic stresses of both racial identity and lower socioeconomic status are present are associated with shorter telomere lengths, known as TL.
Related to the aging process, telomeres are a recently discovered part of chromosomes that are located at the tips of DNA strands. Over time, a person’s TLs get shorter.
In the study, 239 African American, white and Mexican adults in disadvantaged Detroit neighborhoods donated blood to have their telomere lengths measured.
The study put real numbers behind questions public health officials and social justice advocates of race and poverty have asked for decades. The study found racial marginalization, poverty and lack of access to resources have deleterious effects on health.
However, the study also showed these health disparities are reversible.
“It may be particularly necessary for those hoping to eliminate health inequality to go beyond reliance on static and conceptions of the interrelation of race and health — to acknowledge that marginalization of any identified social group may have population health repercussions, broaden the theories of how such marginalization is enacted and view marginalization and its consequences as dynamic and relational and, therefore, mutable,” the study said.
According to the study, funding for the city’s public services has declined, poverty is becoming worse in Detroit and segregation based on race has increased over the last few decades after white residents have moved out of the city.
The study said in 2014, the United Nations decried the shutting off of residents’ water, saying that the city had committed a human rights violation.
Arline T. Geronimus, a professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University and one of the authors of the study, said the study shows that environments in which there are constant socially patterned stressors wear down an individual on the molecular level.
Geronimus said one word by itself, such as “racism” or “poverty” or “culture,” doesn’t explain the whole picture. She said the study’s conclusions point to a need for new ways of thinking about public health. She also said there needs to be new ways to structure investment in high-poverty urban populations to solve this issue.
While some previous studies of race and telomere lengths had only shown African Americans had shorter TLs, this study found disadvantaged whites also have shorter telomere lengths.
In conclusion the study showed that one’s environment, such as the neighborhood one resides in, has an effect on the population’s public health and mortality.
The study also found African-Americans — regardless of income level — had shorter telomere lengths. The study said racial identity-based stressors should be viewed in their historical contexts.
Geronimus is known for proposing the “weathering” hypothesis, which states that, over time, living in an environment in which one is racially disadvantaged wears down a person’s health.
“The weathering hypothesis interprets TL as a marker of accelerated aging that is biomechanistically impacted by repeated or chronic physiological stress process activation,” the study read. “In the Detroit context, these stress processes are conceptualized as having been initiated by: physical environmental threats and material hardship attributable to a history of race-conscious ghettoization and urban disinvestment, a current political economy guided by austerity urbanism and interpersonal encounters or cues that are experienced as threats to identity safety.”