In spite of other health issues, older Black individuals tend to be stronger emotionally than their White counterparts, according to research from the University of Illinois.
Dr. Uchechi A. Mitchell discussed the finding at a recent MIT AgeLab webinar, “The Aging of the Black Community: A Biophysical Perspective on Stress and Resilience.’’ Mitchell, assistant professor at the University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health in the Division of Community Health Sciences, is a health disparities and minority aging researcher.
Family ties, community solidarity and spiritual support can enable Black older populations to counter the disabling effects of racism, Mitchell said.
In these communities, religion is a refuge and a force against the negative effects of discrimination and even physical assault, she added.
Stressors and coping processes
Michell said the research project used data from national surveys of older adults and focuses (which involved meeting with older African Americans), on how “individual and community-level stressors and coping processes shape health over the life course and contribute to our understanding of risk and resilience.
“Race and gender determine life experience, and they will diverge among races,’’ she said. “For example, life expectancy at birth for whites is 78.5; for Blacks, it’s 74.8.
“So here is a four-year difference at birth before you even start eating poorly and stresses happen in terms of your life expectancy. The life expectancy disparity represents an inequity for us to face,’’ Mitchell said.
A decline in health among older Black Americans is often a result of social and economic disparity and political marginalization, Mitchell said.
Coping with these setbacks can lead to physical decline and morbidity from alcohol and drug abuse. She said probabilities predict Blacks are more likely to have cardiovascular disease than any other group.
Segregation that has pushed Black populations into neighborhoods at high risk for environmental hazards has led to poorer health for these populations.
“Exposure to environmental stress models helps explain the ways in which our personal risk is intertwined with our social and physical environment. In particular we know that housing in neighborhoods with industry toxins and other chemicals affect our health.’’
A mental-health paradox
But despite the risks of living in unhealthy neighborhoods, Mitchell’s research shows that Black older Americans enjoy better emotional health than their White counterparts.
“Older Blacks tend to have similar or better mental health than Whites despite the preponderance of these exposures. ‘’
Mitchell has worked with academic colleagues in Michigan, South Carolina and California to understand the paradox of good mental health among older Blacks.
“What we see is that chronic stress persisting at a rate at which Black adults report depressive symptoms is less than reported by white populations.
“We try to think about what may explain these paradoxical or seemingly paradoxical findings, given the context in which older Black adults continue to live with racism,’’ she said.
The power of belonging
She said that neighborhoods such as Washington Park in Chicago possess a trust and cohesion among residents that is “a unique aspect of Black cultural identity; a high level of communalism, a sense of belonging and integration within the Black community.’’
When there is negative mental health, Mitchell said, “it could be due to older Black residents’ identifying with a lot of adverse experiences and thinking about brutality; of closely identifying with these experiences. It’s not happening to you, but it still puts a strain on your mental health.’’
Among other findings:
- Close friends matter greatly to older Black adults, sometimes above and beyond the support of immediate family members.
- The disparity between older White populations experiencing greater depression than older Black adults, Mitchell said, could be attributed to “many of the diagnostic tools for major depression were predominantly created and tested using white adult samples.’’
- “Unhealthy behavior such as smoking and drinking may protect against poor mental health but at the expense of poor physical health.”
Longevity on rise
Technological advances have allowed older Black adults to live longer, healthier lives and by 2030, Mitchell said, data shows that there will be more older adults and children within the United States population than those in the middle group of ages. There also will be a greater number of non-white Americans, she said.
“It’s important to consider that the younger generation typically is caring for older adults” in the Black community, Mitchell added. “We have to think about the financial implications of that. This finding makes one really think about how are we going to provide resources to this diverse group of adults. We need to be paying attention to the social and economic needs of people of color, who need help in aging.’’
Mitchell’s presentation was the second in several 2022 sessions of MIT AgeLab’s continuing Age & Equity series.
In a four-decade career in journalism, Eleanor O’Sullivan has reviewed many books on best practices for financial advisors, has written for Financial Advisor and the USA Today network, and was movie critic for the Asbury Park Press.