More than just skin deep – childhood racial discrimination affects health later in life

by Freya Lucas

March 31, 2020

Children who experience racial discrimination show higher risk markers for later cardiometabolic disease, including diabetes, heart disease or stroke, according to new research from Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and The Australian National University (ANU).


The first study of its kind examined the link between Australian primary school students’ experiences of racial discrimination and a range of cardiometabolic risk markers, including obesity, blood pressure and inflammation. While the children studied were of primary age, the research will be of interest to those in the early childhood education and care (ECEC) sector, with research into unconscious and conscious bias showing that these traits are cemented in early childhood. 


Lead researcher Professor Naomi Priest said cardiometabolic disease is a leading cause of adult morbidity and mortality globally, but that the links between children’s experiences of racial discrimination and their future risk of cardiometabolic diseases is an as yet underexplored area.


Sadly, she continued, racism and racial discrimination are everyday experiences for many Australian children and young people from Indigenous and minority ethnic groups, with findings from the study showing that targeted behaviour can affect more than just mental health. 


“Racial discrimination can ‘get under the skin’ to influence overweight and obesity, blood pressure and markers of inflammation,” Professor Priest explained. 


More than 120 students from Victoria participated in the study, which examined a range of cardiometabolic risk markers including body mass index (BMI), waist circumstance, weight height ratio, blood pressure and a range of inflammatory markers. 


Nearly half (47 per cent) of the children from Indigenous and minority ethnic groups (including Pacific Islander, Maori, Middle Eastern, African, Latin American, South Asian and South East Asian students) reported two or more experiences of racial discrimination. 


Children who reported two or more experiences of racial discrimination had increased BMI, waist circumference, systolic blood pressure and some markers of inflammation.       


“This reinforces the ongoing need to address racism and racial discrimination as important determinants of chronic disease risk and to address the inequitable burden of chronic disease experienced by those from Indigenous and minority ethnic groups,” Professor Priest said.


The study’s findings are published in Brain Behaviour and Immunity