Teens who believe they are discriminated against in their daily lives — whether because of their race, gender, age or physical size — have higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol, according to a new study by California State University, Northridge child and adolescent development professor Virginia Huynh.
Dysregulated cortisol patterns during adolescence can have implication for later adult health and has` been associated with cardiovascular disease and cancer mortality. The health risks may increase for those teens who experience discrimination or disrespect on a regular basis — in particular people of color and women, according to the study.
“For a long time, there’s been a belief that adult experiences matter more than those in childhood, even when it comes to health,” Huynh said. “However, it is while you are a teenager that you are trying to determine where you fit in society, where you belong. If you are excluded or mistreated, it can affect how you present yourself and interact with others. Those teen experiences truly matter.
“And our study shows that those experiences can also have an adverse effect on teenagers’ health, and may have long-term consequences,” she said.
Huynh and colleagues recently completed a study involving more than 300 teenagers attending Los Angeles public high schools. The teens were asked to report any perceived discrimination and whether that discrimination was attributed to race, gender, age, height or weight. The researchers then measured the high schoolers’ cortisol levels. Cortisol is a naturally occurring hormone released by the body in times of stress. Prolonged elevated levels of cortisol can have long-term effects on a person’s immune system — from sleep loss and depression to cardiovascular disease and hypertension.
The study, “Everyday Discrimination and Diurnal Cortisol During Adolescence,” was published in the online journal Science Direct, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0018506X16300605, earlier this month. In addition to Huynh, the study was conducted by CSUN child and adolescent development professor Shu-Sha Angie Guan, David M. Almeida at Pennsylvania State University, and Heather McCreath and Andrew J. Fuligni at the University of California, Los Angeles.
The researchers found that everyday discrimination, regardless of the type, can contribute to higher cortisol levels in adolescents of different ethnic backgrounds and genders, which in turn raises concerns about the teens’ health when they become adults.
“By studying a broad selection of students and asking about discrimination beyond the traditional race and gender, we were able to find that all adolescents are affected by perceived discrimination,” Huynh said. “But when you take into account that certain students — minorities and women — are more likely to experience some form of discrimination or disrespect on a more regular basis, the impact of elevated cortisol levels would be compounded.”
Huynh cited the example of two teens whose school is located near a supermarket. Every day the store is flooded with students when school lets out. A white male student gets randomly
stopped by the store’s security guard, who asks to search his backpack. The stress may increase the student’s cortisol levels, but the incident never happens again. A Latino male student is also stopped and searched by the guard. Unlike the white student, the Latino student gets stopped by the guard several times over the course of the school year.
“When the white student is searched, his cortisol levels may rise, but since the stop only happens once, levels don’t stay elevated,” Huynh said. “If the Latino student experiences the stressful event more frequently, the elevated cortisol levels over time could have long-term implications for his health when he’s an adult.”
Adults tend to accuse teens of being “overly sensitive” to some situations, Huynh said. “We might want to take a step back and think about that a little,” she said. “It might seem like an overreaction, but if they are actually experiencing distress, it could affect them biologically.
“Parents and adults who care for kids might see this as more of a reason to talk to their kids, especially teenagers,” she continued. “I know it’s hard to talk to teenagers, especially when they don’t want to talk to you. You don’t want to be overly intrusive; you want to be there to listen.
“Once you realize that the situation has not just psychological, but biological effects as well, I think there is more motivation to work with the teenager to find effective coping strategies,” she said. “For a teen, it may be something as simple as having someone who will listen to them, or there may be issues that call for a bigger action. But if we don’t take these steps now, it may be too late when they’re adults and their health is adversely impacted.”