New research suggests cardiovascular mortality could be affected by the color of your skin

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 - Shervin Assari
Shervin Assari

Anger and hostility can have harmful affects on one’s cardiovascular health, but the color of your skin may determine how severe that impact will be. 

In a new study from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Shervin Assari, MD, a research investigator at the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture and Health in U of M’s School of Public Health and Department of Psychiatry, found that whites are more likely than blacks to die from heart problems related to their levels of anger.

Assari, who has been at U of M for about five years, examined data from the Institute for Social Research Americans’ Changing Life Study, looking at nearly 1,600 individuals from 2001 to 2011. He measured their baseline hostility and anger and kept track of deaths due to cardiovascular disease over the 10-year period.

He found that whites were 40 percent more likely to develop cardiovascular problems leading to death than blacks with the same levels of anger and hostility. All other factors including age, education, smoking, drinking and other health issues were equal, and outcomes were the same for men and women.

“When you go to the scientific literature, the research is mostly derived from studies about the white middle class,” Assari said in an interview with Cardiovascular Business. “Scientists and researchers have assumed that the effects in health are universal.”

Assari’s study is helping to break down those misconceptions and was able to prove that certain conditions do in fact affect races and cultures differently. One reason whites may be more affected by hostility and anger than blacks simply has to do with each races’ history in the U.S.

Because blacks have been oppressed and have experienced physical and social adversities for generations, it’s likely that they have adopted coping mechanisms over time, Assari said. Since whites have historically lived a much more privileged life than blacks, it’s less likely that they would have created similar strategies for themselves.

“Blacks have lived a life full of adversities. Several hundred years ago, they came as slaves and then never lived as much of a privileged life as whites,” Assari said. “Even now, as policies have changed and the country is trying to reduce the gap, blacks are still living inside urban areas with poverty, crime, danger and many other things. It might be culture, but it might also be a type of adaptation because of living an adverse life for decades.”

Although the study showed that whites were more susceptible to death because of cardio problems related to anger, their mental and physical health was still better than that of blacks, showing that whites are more vulnerable to hardship. Assari, who compares race and gender populations against other factors in alternative research, said this is true for other conditions as well.

“For depression, it’s the same thing. Depression kills people, but depression kills more whites than blacks,” he said. “Low education kills people, but low education kills whites more than blacks. Blacks have developed a systematic resilience.”

High levels of anger can cause elevated hypertension and other heart conditions, which can eventually lead to death by stroke and heart attack.

To control anger and prevent it from becoming detrimental to one's health, Assari suggests individuals practice meditation, express their feelings and seek therapy.

“We know what works,” Assari said. “The problem is that we don’t really use what we know works in our real life.”

Going forward, Assari said the next steps in his research will be examining the reasons for why there is a systemic resilience among blacks and why whites are more sensitive to risk factors.