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Racism in early life can affect long-term health, experts say

Excessive adversity, such as racism, can activate biological reactions that lead to lifelong problems in physical and mental well-being, experts say. 

Early experiences literally shape the architecture of the developing brain, as Knowable cited. Since the brain is connected to the rest of the body, early traumatic experiences affect all of our biological systems, for better or worse, over time. This knowledge can help us better understand why people of color in the United States are at greater risk of developing chronic medical conditions and aging prematurely than white people.

When confronted with a threat, stress response systems inside our body become activated. Blood pressure and heart rate increase. The immune system triggers an inflammatory response to prepare for wound healing and fighting infection. Metabolic systems mobilize blood sugar to fuel the “fight or flight” response. Once the threat has been managed, the stress response returns to baseline. 

If the level of adversity remains high for long periods of time (confronting racism or poverty, for instance), continuous activation of the stress response can have a wear-and-tear effect inside the body that leads to “toxic stress,” triggering a host of resulting health problems. Children, at a formative stage in their lives, are most acutely shaped by such stress, as Knowable cited.