Racism might be putting your immune system at risk

A new study sheds light on the connection between discrimination and physical health.

Stressed young afro american woman holding head in hands and feeling demotivated while sitting at he...
Originally Published: 

One thing about the pandemic, it forced us to pay attention to the connection between mental health and physical health. Even if you haven’t gotten COVID (yet), you’ve likely felt the emotional impacts of isolation, worry, and grief down to your very bones. That’s not “all in your head,” either: Science has continually confirmed that the health of our bodies and minds are inextricably intertwined. And now, a new study suggests that stress not only makes us more vulnerable to certain diseases, but it also actually ages our immune systems in a way that can make us more vulnerable to everything, The Washington Post reported.

The study, which was published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, looked at the impact of stress on the age of immune system T-cells. The scientists specifically analyzed how five kinds of social stressors — stressful life events, chronic stress, everyday discrimination, lifetime discrimination, and life trauma — affected the presence of “naive T-cells” in 5,744 participants.

Naive T-cells are essentially young T-cells, and you have less and less of them as you age; one way that researchers determine how old your immune system is, functionally, is by how many naive T-cells you have. In this particular study, scientists found that, after they controlled for age and other variables, people with higher social stress had fewer naive T-cells. Basically, social stress correlates with having an older immune system.

“Our study helps clarify the association between social stress and faster immune aging,” Eric Klopack, a co-author of the study and a scholar in the Leonard Davis School of Gerontology at UCLA, wrote in The Post. Klopack was careful to emphasize that the research can’t determine that stress directly causes the immune system to age, but it does confirm that these factors are correlative. It may seem like a fairly obvious connection, but understanding its nuances can help medical scientists develop better treatments, Klopack noted.

Also, people with higher degrees of stress have a larger proportion of “late differentiated” T cells — older cells that have exhausted their ability to fight invaders and instead produce proteins that can increase harmful inflammation, according to The Post. Ultimately, what this study validates the notion that stress takes its toll on how well you’re able to fight off diseases and infections, especially as you age.

And more crucially, this seemingly adds to the growing body of research about how marginalized peoples’ health is negatively affected by discrimination. A recent study showed that living near racist people can actually make you sick, and other studies have shown that communities of color disproportionately suffer from the health impacts of climate change. Add to this the (data-supported) fact that the U.S. healthcare system is notoriously racist, and you have a pretty clear picture of how discrimination is literally killing people of color at every level — from systemic racism in healthcare down to the T-cells.