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Feelings of Discrimination May Hurt the Heart

Even subtle differences in treatment altered health of black women

SATURDAY, April 30, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- Stress stemming from discrimination may be causing coronary artery calcification in black women, says a study by researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.

The investigators found that the more discrimination the women felt, the more likely they were to have coronary artery calcification, a buildup of calcium in blood vessels that's associated with atherosclerosis.

"We know from other studies in this area that stressful life experiences can have an effect on cardiovascular outcomes," Tene Lewis, a health psychologist in preventive medicine at Rush, said in a prepared statement. "Discrimination appears to be a stressor that has particular relevance for the health of African-American women."

The study included 181 middle-aged black women from the Chicago and Pittsburgh areas. The women completed a questionnaire that assessed their experiences of subtle discrimination, such as being ignored or treated with a lack of courtesy or respect.

"The women reported discrimination in the form of having poorer service in stores or restaurants, being treated as if they were less smart, or being treated as if they were dishonest," Lewis said.

She noted that discrimination today is more subtle than in the past.

"It's rare that someone would use blatantly racist language in public, but that doesn't mean that discrimination is no longer a problem," Lewis said.

The study found that coronary artery calcification was present in 59.6 percent of the women and the more discrimination they reported, the more likely they were to have any calcification.

The results were scheduled to be presented Saturday at the American Heart Association's annual conference on cardiovascular disease, epidemiology and prevention in Washington, D.C.

"These findings suggest that chronic exposure to discrimination may be an important risk factor for cardiovascular disease in African-American women," Lewis said.

"This is an unavoidable stressor for African-American women," she said. "Because we can't change society, we need to focus on helping African-American women cope more effectively with these encounters. We really need to come up with some specific strategies in dealing with discrimination."

More information

The U.S. National Women's Health Information Center has more about atherosclerosis.

SOURCE: American Heart Association, news release, April 30, 2005
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