‘Weathering’: What are the health effects of stress and discrimination?

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REPEATED exposure to socioeconomic adversity, political marginalization, racism, and perpetual discrimination can harm health. In this Special Feature, we explore this harmful effect, which is known as weathering.

If there is one thing that the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests last year have made abundantly clear, it is this: Racism kills.

But racism and racial discrimination do not just jeopardize people’s lives directly, through violent acts and hate crimes perpetrated by those who hold racist beliefs.

Discrimination and marginalization can also slowly chip away at one’s health, causing those who are at the receiving end of discriminatory attitudes to age or even die prematurely.

In health, this effect of premature biological aging and associated health risks as a result of being repeatedly exposed to social adversity and marginalization bears the name of weathering.

In this feature, we explore the meaning and ramifications of this term by looking at the studies that solidified and broadened its acceptance in the scientific community.

Health inequities affect all of us differently. Visit our dedicated hub for an in-depth look at social disparities in health and what we can do to correct them.

The term “weathering” was coined in 1992 by Dr. Arline Geronimus, at the time a researcher in the Department of Public Health Policy and Administration at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Currently, Dr. Geronimus is a professor in the Health Behavior and Health Education department of the same university.

While studying trends in women’s fertility, Dr. Geronimus had observed that African American women do not have the same “prime” childbearing years as their white counterparts.

Namely, an average white woman is considered to have the most fertility and the lowest risk of unhealthy pregnancy and neonatal mortality when she is between 20 and early 30 years old, notes Dr. Geronimus in her paper.

However, for African American women, this peak of fertility and point of lowest risk was in their teens. In other words, Black women in the United States were more likely to have a healthy pregnancy in their late teens than in their mid-twenties.

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