ISSUES & TRENDS: ‘Weathering’ and how poverty and racism accelerate aging and disease
Earlier this year, Public health researcher Arline Geronimus of the University of Michigan was featured on the NPR radio show Fresh Air to discuss her work focused on disparities in health outcomes for Black and Hispanic people and those living in poverty in the U.S. The full, 36-minute interview is available on audio stream, along with text highlights of the interview, on the NPR website. Instead of the traditional belief that disparities are due to genetics, diet, and exercise (which is not supported by the data that has accumulated over the years), Geronimus argues that the nearly constant stress that marginalized people suffer from living with poverty and discrimination damages their bodies at the cellular level and, over time, leads to serious health problems. The term she coined to describe what she saw happening was “weathering”, a metaphor meant to evoke a sense of erosion by constant stress.
Geronimus says that weathering “literally wears down your heart, your arteries, your neuroendocrine systems, … all your body systems so that in effect, you become chronologically old at a young age” and writes about it in her new book, Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society. Weathering also helps explain why more complications are observed in Black women who give birth in their 20’s than those who give birth in their teens, she says, because the older women had endured the stress of their difficult conditions for a longer period, and their health had suffered more for it.
She cautions, however, that social mobility of minorities does not mean less stress. “We won’t solve health inequalities between Blacks and whites or Latinx and whites or other groups simply by getting people more education or higher incomes. This chronic stress arousal is more likely in those kinds of unsupportive environments than … the more supportive environments, if you stick with your own group.” The deep-rooted nature of the complex social issues that have a weathering effect on individual health requires collaborative approaches with broad support to attend to what’s happening in these different settings.
Carlos Soto, CAN Research Analyst