Biological Weathering and Heart Disease

The phenomenon that's aging heart cells in minority groups

Don’t underestimate stress. How much stress you experience and how you react to it can lead to a wide variety of health problems—most notably heart disease. This underscores the importance of identifying the subtle signs of wear and tear that may signal a time for radical change. 

Stress comes in a variety of forms, ranging from psychological stress (i.e., depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, sexual trauma), performance anxiety and work-related stress, to life-altering events such as the death of a family member or friend, divorce, change in health, financial troubles, or relationship problems.

The body copes remarkably well with occasional stress, a reminder of the body’s resilient nature, but there’s only so much the body can withstand. Over time, the negative impacts of stress compounding on itself manifest in mental and physical ways.

The cumulative effects of stress are of particular concern in Black and Brown communities, where the ordinary pressures of everyday life are compounded by repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination.

This results in erosion of health that occurs much earlier in life than in White communities—a phenomenon that has been dubbed biological weathering by social scientists.

This article will explore the theory of biological weathering, and its subtle, yet significant impact on the health of historically marginalized communities.

Woman with chest pain

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Systemic Racism: A Special Kind of Stress

Racism kills. Exactly how remains a mystery, but new research finds that repeated exposure to discrimination and systemic inequity can slowly chip away at your health.

The health-harming phenomenon is called weathering and its indolent impact comes as a result of repeated exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination. 

The term biological weathering was coined by Arline Geronimus, Sc.D., associate director and professor of Health Behavior & Health Education at the University of Michigan, to describe the erosion of health that impacts Black and Brown people much earlier in life than white Americans.

Borrowing the term from environmental studies, weathering is similar to the soil erosion that happens over time due to exposure to the elements—a small buildup of negatively-impacting events eventually leads to a massive landslide or avalanche.

In humans, this erosion is the accumulation of a broad range of adverse and largely preventable health conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and poorer mental health, that lead to early death.

For those in Black and Brown communities, navigating the complex trauma of systemic racism also increases the likelihood of engaging in poor health behaviors linked to increased risk for heart disease and stroke, such as:

  • Smoking
  • Overeating
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Poor sleep hygiene
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Not taking your medications as prescribed

While the idea of recognizing racism as a detriment to our health isn’t new, it has gained traction amidst the nation’s social reckoning after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent protests around the country.

How Biological Weathering Impacts Heart Health

Racism forms cracks in our spirit, like cracks in the pavement of a busy road. Constant bouts of discrimination fill and expand the crack, like raindrops. Over time, the crack becomes a pothole that no longer resembles its original form. The same is true of our cells over time.

It seems that there are specific stressors—namely persistent prejudice and income inequality—that especially trigger biological aging.

Past research has linked low socioeconomic status (SES) to inflammation, metabolic dysregulation, and various chronic and age-related diseases such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Studies suggest that the challenges and adversities associated with low SES may result in premature aging and an increased risk of morbidity and mortality. 

Socioeconomic Inequalities in Black Communities

Systemic inequalities widen the racial wealth gap, leaving Black families with a fraction of the wealth of White families. Black families are therefore more likely to be economically insecure and have access to far fewer opportunities for economic mobility. Research shows Black households are:

  • Less likely to have access to tax-advantaged forms of savings due to discriminatory employment practice
  • Less likely to be homeowners due to discriminatory practices like redlining
  • More likely to live in racially segregated communities where they are screened from advantageous employment opportunities


Small scale research has shown consistently that the association between income, biological aging, and how well your cells function is not explained by health-related behaviors like poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, alcohol consumption, or whether or not you have health insurance, but are tied in large part to cumulative life stressors. 

For some people, the environment that they live in simply gives them little to no chance to cope in healthy ways, and a lack of economic mobility means that they cannot leave these stressful environments even if they wanted to.

While stress impacts a myriad of organs, it seems that the heart is particularly sensitive to its effects. Acclaimed endocrinologist, Dr. Hans Selye, has theorized a conceptual framework explaining how chronic stress can break down the body. According to Selye's chronic adaptation syndrome model, chronic stress puts the body in a constant state of fight or flight.

When the body senses danger, such as when under stress, it hyperproduces cortisol and other hormones to meet the demands of our heightened sense of alert. Over a short period of time, this might be helpful, but over time, the body continues to produce high levels of these chemicals even in the absence of imminent danger. As a result, diseases of adaptation, including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and weight gain set in.

Chronic stress puts you at risk of developing full-blown hypertension, obesity, and type 2 diabetes—all of which are independent risk factors for heart disease. Even more, repeated trauma on the body triggered by mental, emotional, or physical stress ages cells throughout the body, including our heart cells, limiting their ability to function in a maximally effective capacity.

Find a Way Forward

For those in Black and Brown communities, mitigating the harmful effects of biological weathering will take more than general stress management techniques. It will take more than mindfulness and wellness practices—like yoga, going for a walk, and meditating.

While these methods are effective ways to mitigate acute stress, improving heart health in Black and Brown communities means leveraging power and influence at the local, state, and federal levels to bring down the systemically racist constructs that hinder people from achieving good health.

Coupling this movement, while acknowledging healthy ways to deal with stress and emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise, are central to limiting heart disease in BIPOC and white communities alike.

Summary

Biological weathering refers to an erosion of health in Black and Brown communities that occurs much earlier in life than in White communities. This is due to increased exposure to stressors, such as persistent prejudice and income inequality, that trigger biological aging.

Biological weathering puts people of color at risk for health conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and poorer mental health, that lead to early death.

The only way to improve the health of those in historically marginalized communities is by ending structural inequalities and systemically racist constructs that keep people from achieving good health at the local, state, and federal levels.

A Word From Verywell

There is no easy answer to reducing the effects of biological weathering and closing the gap in health outcomes in Black and Brown communities. It will take a multi-layered approach to address dozens of social factors that exacerbate health disparities, starting with enacting policies that foster greater socioeconomic stability, improve education, and increase access to health care.

Cope with persistent adversity take a heavy physical and mental toll that should not be discounted. If you are struggling with the chronic stress of weathering, consider seeking out additional support to help you navigate this complex stressor. For instance, booking a session with a mental health professional who understands the harmful psychological effects of systemic racism may be a good first step in finding healthy ways to process the pain.

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8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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