By Stephenie Livingston
Discrimination interacts with certain genetic variants to change blood pressure, report researchers.
In addition, discrimination experienced by close friends and family had a more significant impact on study participants than did firsthand experiences, according to Connie Mulligan, a professor with appointments at the University of Florida’s anthropology department and Genetics Institute.
“We’ve been missing a huge factor in explaining racial disparities in disease.”
The researchers developed a novel measure of unfair treatment to study the effects of discrimination on health, particularly with respect to racial disparities in complex diseases, which are illnesses resulting from both genetic and environmental factors. They used the measure to investigate hypertension, which is more prevalent among African Americans.
“We’ve been missing a huge factor in explaining racial disparities in disease,” says Mulligan, coauthor of the new study in PLOS ONE. “Our finding of an interaction between genetics and environment could explain why it’s been so hard to identify all the risk factors for complex diseases, particularly those that have racial disparities.
“You have to look at genetics and environment in the same study if you’re investigating complex diseases like hypertension, certain kinds of cancer, and psychological disorders.”
The researchers combined anthropological analysis, including in-depth, ethnographic interviews with 157 AfricanAmericans, with measurements of 30,000 genetic variants and measures of genetic ancestry.
Mulligan and colleagues identified eight significant genetic variants in five genes that were previously associated with cardiovascular disease. They added sociocultural data collected by study coauthor Lance Gravlee, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Florida, and community partners in Tallahassee, Florida, and their novel measure of vicarious unfair treatment, and tested for interactions between genetic variants and unfair treatment.
This let them identify associations with blood pressure and a new class of genes that previously had been associated with psychosocial distress and mood disorders.
The researchers suggest genetic variants that predispose some people to depression, anxiety, or suicide might also make them more sensitive to the effects of discrimination and lead to higher blood pressure. The role of these genes with blood pressure regulation may only become relevant when dealing with the effects of discrimination and could help explain why it’s been so difficult to understand racial disparities in disease, Mulligan says.
As for the finding that vicarious discrimination causes greater stress, Mulligan says people may feel they have more control over things experienced personally than acts of discrimination happening to people close to them.
“People may also be reluctant to report personal experiences of discrimination to avoid the stigma, and denial may itself be a coping mechanism,” Mulligan says. “It’s also likely effects of vicarious unfair treatment may be even greater, since the study did not include events that one hears through the news, such as an act of racial violence.”
Mulligan was inspired by the personal history of the study’s lead author Jacklyn Quinlan, a former postdoctoral researcher, who tackled the project after the loss of her Caribbean-American husband to a heart attack.
She hopes the new study will broaden the way both the academic and medical fields approach disease. “We’re quick to say that racial disparities in disease are due to poverty or access to good healthcare. Or that there might be a genetic basis. Our research suggests it’s even more complicated,” Mulligan says.
Additional coauthors are from Health Equality Alliance of Tallahassee (HEAT) and the Florida Department of Children and Families Substance Abuse and Mental Health Program, the University of Florida’s department of anthropology, Greater Frenchtown Revitalization Council in Tallahassee, and Pennsylvania University’s department of anthropology.
Source: University of Florida