In this six-minute video LDI Senior Fellow Courtney Boen discusses the findings of one of the first studies to directly link multiple biomarkers to specific social determinants of health to quantify their contribution to Black-white disparities in accelerated aging. Boen is a Research Associate in both the Penn Population Studies Center and Population Aging Research Center.

On average, Black Americans are biologically about nine years older than white Americans of the same chronological age. According to a new study by LDI Senior Fellow Courtney Boen, this aging disparity stems from inequitable social and economic lived experiences. These challenges include racialized poverty and lower wealth, discrimination, and a higher frequency of major events such as family deaths. These exposures lead to measurable physiological stress reactions. Importantly, the results support efforts to close the wealth gap between Black and white Americans as a way to reduce racial disparities in aging.

The Weathering Effect

To examine the connection between race and biological aging, Boen and coauthors used data from a longitudinal study of people over the age of 50 from across the U.S. The study collects blood samples and participant reports about health, social, and economic experiences every two years. 

Building on previous work, the researchers analyzed participant reports about financial conditions and stress exposures over their lifetime, plus three measures of their biological aging. Each measure included multiple biomarkers, for example one focused on inflammation and metabolic and immune functioning, which indicate physiological stress and cellular damage. 

The analyses showed that adverse social and economic exposures and stressors across the lifespan were linked to faster biological aging. The results indicate that because of historical legacies of racism and current racial inequality, Black study participants had greater lifetime exposure to economic hardship and stress. As a consequence, Black study participants had an average biological age at least nine years older than white participants.

“An individual’s aging process has multiple influences over the life course that can accelerate or slow biological aging,” Boen said. “These influences include social and economic status, education, and environmental exposures. Racial aging disparities are not inherent biological differences but reflect the cumulative impacts of multiple social factors such as childhood poverty, job discrimination, living in places with poorer air and water quality, and wealth inequities.”

The results support the weathering hypothesis, which contends that the repeated exposure to racism that Black people experience over time “gets under the skin” and physically damages the body. Continual activation of fight or flight hormones from early life through older adulthood acts as a “thousand cuts” that affect a person’s health over the life course.

Close the Wealth Gap

The good news is that racial disparities in aging are not inevitable and can be prevented. Individuals can be resilient to weathering, and Boen and colleagues suggest policies to narrow racialized health gaps. They emphasize that because these gaps are rooted in social and economic conditions, they can be tackled with social interventions and policies. 

Money protects against stress, expands opportunities, and affords better health care. Since Black Americans tend to have less income and wealth as a result of discriminatory U.S. laws and practices, financial programs and policies could reduce aging and health gaps.

These programs are both possible and broadly beneficial, Boen noted. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans benefited from policies that stopped evictions, provided economic assistance to people with children, and in other ways stabilized families’ finances. 

Continued financial support to low-income individuals and families would result in long-term population health improvements. Boen noted that the study results highlighted the sizable impact that interventions aimed at closing the racial wealth gap would have in reducing racial disparities in aging. Sustained economic support across the life course could reduce our racial aging and health gaps.

The study, “Patterns and Life Course Determinants of Black-White Disparities in Biological Age Acceleration: A Decomposition Analysis,” was published on December 1, 2023 in Demography. Authors include Courtney E. Boen, Y. Claire Yang, Allison E. Aiello, Alexis C. Dennis, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Dayoon Kwon, and Daniel W. Belsky.


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