Income and ethnic identity issues among lower and lower-middle class individuals may lead to deterioration of the DNA, according to a new study.
According to a study published in the American Sociological Association’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior, a team of biologists and social researchers examined the telomeres of poor and lower-middle class Black, White, and Mexican residents of Detroit. Telomeres are tiny caps at the ends of DNA strands that protect cells from aging prematurely. Telomeres naturally shorten as people age, but high stress levels can accelerate the process. Short telomeres are partly responsible for illnesses such as cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
The study found that low-income residents of Detroit, regardless of race, have significantly shorter telomeres than the national average.
White Detroit residents who were lower-middle class had the longest telomeres in the study. However, the shortest telomeres belonged to poor Whites. Black residents had about the same telomere lengths regardless of whether they were poor or lower-middle class. Poor Mexicans had longer telomeres than Mexicans with higher income.
Researchers said the apparent better health of poorer Mexicans compared to more affluent members of their community points to possibility that insular ethnic interactions may alleviate some of the negative effects of racial injustices. The lower-income Mexicans lacked English speaking skills, which limited their interaction with Americans and made them less likely to encounter discrimination or any other ill judgements due to their ethnicity. Close-knit family structures also provided security and sense of well-being.
“They come with a set of support systems and with cultural orientation that doesn’t undermine their sense of self-worth,” said Nobel laureate Dr. Arline Geronimus, a visiting scholar at the Stanford Center for Advanced Study and study’s lead author. “They then often live in these ethnic enclaves, many of them don’t speak anything other than Spanish, and so they’re not interacting with Americans who view them as ‘other’ or who treat them badly.”
The shorter telomeres among lower-middle class Mexicans were attributed to interaction with Americans in work or school, where they may experience more race-related discrimination. Individuals in those groups were more susceptible to being adversely affected by such treatment.
“If anything, some of our evidence suggests that whether it’s the poor Mexican immigrant or the African-Americans who have been discriminated against and dealt with hardship for generation after generation, they’ve developed systems to cope somewhat that perhaps white Detroiters haven’t,” Geronimus said. “So there’s great strength in these populations. But it’s not enough to solve these problems without the help of policymakers and more emphatic fellow citizens.” •