Discrimination may accelerate ageing

Around 30 years ago I saw a documentary in which primary school children were subjected to an experiment in discrimination. Made in 1968, after the assassination of Martin Luther King, the film documented what would happen when a teacher segregated children by eye colour.

In a two-day experiment, blue-eyed kids were told they were superior to brown-eyed kids and treated accordingly. The following day, the roles were reversed. The idea, according to the teacher, Jane Elliott, was to teach the class about the detrimental effects of discrimination. In this case, specifically racism.

The documentary was a huge hit, but watching it in the early ’90s, I felt uncomfortable. Despite Ms Elliott’s clearly good intentions, I wondered what lasting impact the exercise would have on the kids. They were only in grade 3.

Ms Elliott still has her fans, but some believe the experiment caused more harm than good. Author and professor of journalism Stephen G. Gooding is one such critic. He wrote: “Stripping away the veneer of the experiment, what was left had nothing to do with race. It was about cruelty and shaming.” 

Professor Gooding went on to say that the exercise “did nothing to address or explain the root causes of racism”.

Prof. Gooding is far better qualified than I am to critique that documentary. However, despite my own misgivings about it, it unquestionably showed me how damaging baseless discrimination can be. 

And while I’ve never doubted the psychological harm discrimination could do, new research shows the damage can also be physiological.

Can discrimination accelerate the ageing process?

In a new study published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity-Health, researchers found evidence linking discrimination to accelerated ageing. 

Senior author Professor Adolfo Cuevas said: “Experiencing discrimination appears to hasten the process of ageing.” This could, he said, “be contributing to disease and early mortality and fuelling health disparities”. Dr Cuevas is assistant professor in the department of social and behavioral sciences at NYU’s School of Global Public Health.

His research shows that people who experience discrimination based on their identity are at increased risk for a range of health issues, including heart disease, high blood pressure and depression. Forms of discrimination in this study included race, gender, weight and disability.

Dr Cuevas and his colleagues looked at three measures of DNA methylation. DNA methylation is a marker that can be used to assess the biological impacts of stress and the ageing process.

Using blood samples and surveys collected from nearly 2000 US adults, the researchers found a correlation between discrimination and accelerated biological ageing. These participants were asked about their experiences with three forms of discrimination: everyday, major and workplace.

Everyday discrimination was defined as subtle and minor instances of disrespect in daily life. Major discrimination focused on acute and intense instances of discrimination (for example, being physically threatened by police officers). Workplace discrimination included “unjust practices, stunted professional opportunities and punishment based on identity”.

The researchers found that discrimination was linked to people who reported more discrimination ageing faster biologically compared to those who experienced less discrimination.

Other factors

Teasing out other potential factors was part of the research approach. This further analysis showed smoking and body mass index explained roughly half of the association between discrimination and ageing. This suggests other stress responses to discrimination, such as increased cortisol and poor sleep, are contributing to accelerated ageing.

“Health behaviours partly explain these disparities,” said Dr Cuevas. However, “it’s likely that a range of processes are at play connecting psychosocial stressors to biological ageing”.

Black study participants reported more discrimination and tended to exhibit older biological age and faster biological ageing. This is hardly surprising. Interestingly though, white participants, despite reporting less discrimination, were more susceptible to its impacts. It was suggested that this was perhaps due to less frequent exposure and fewer coping strategies.

While that in turn suggests that frequent exposure may build resistance, it also betrays a continuing pattern of racism.

The study adds another dimension to what most of us already knew: that discrimination can cause significant harm. We can only hope that as a society we learn to recognise this without potentially traumatising primary school children. And that when we do recognise it, we take action where we can, to reduce and hopefully eliminate that harm.

Have you observed or been subjected to discrimination? How did you deal with it? Let us know via the comments section below.

Also read: Ageism: far more common than many think

Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Andrew Gigacz
Andrew Gigaczhttps://www.patreon.com/AndrewGigacz
Andrew has developed knowledge of the retirement landscape, including retirement income and government entitlements, as well as issues affecting older Australians moving into or living in retirement. He's an accomplished writer with a passion for health and human stories.


  1. Well here we go again some professors trying to justify the job and profession, but in this study, it would seem they didn’t take into consideration lifestyle and other life extremities.

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