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Researchers at the University of Michigan published a study investigating how lifetime stress impacts cardiovascular reactivity to daily stress. The researchers compared daily stress and cardiovascular reactivity and found that white Americans who experienced greater stress across their lifetimes showed greater reactivity to daily stress whereas Black Americans who experienced greater stress across their lifetimes showed no link between daily stress and heart rate.

The study also indicated daily stress in Black individuals can ultimately lead to blunted reactions to stress. These findings align with the weathering hypothesis, which indicates that exposure to social and economic stressors in addition to structural racism can contribute to varying stress responses between racial groups.

Kira Birditt, director of the Aging & Biopsychosocial Innovations Program at the University and first author of the study, said that exhibiting blunted reactivity to stress could ultimately have negative effects on health.

“If you’re under a chronically stressful situation, you show blunted reactivity, meaning that you’re less reactive to stress,” Birditt said. “People do studies in the laboratory, and they find … (participants) showed less reactivity when they’re in a more stressful situation in life. It’s considered bad for your health to have blunted or heightened (reactivity).”

Participants for this research were from the Social Relations Study, a longitudinal study conducted by the Institute for Social Research’s Survey Research Center which aims to learn about health and social relations nationally. Heart rate was used to measure cardiac reactivity as responses to stress usually result in increased heart rates. Participants had their heart rates measured for a duration of three hours while wearing heart rate monitors. Angela Turkelson, data analyst and co-author of the study, said that heart rate data from participants was organized by aligning participants’ heart rate recordings with the survey data within each three hour period.

“Because the survey data is at the every three-hour period, what we have done with this study is aggregated heart rate within a three-hour period,” Turkelson said. “We looked at their median heart rate over the three hours, so every 10 seconds. We have to merge the data based on the timing of their (participants) three hour survey with the tightening of the heart rate data collection.”

Rackham student Akari Oya, who was involved in data analysis for the study, said it was interesting to see how the heart rates of white individuals and Black individuals changed differently in response to stress.

“I analyzed heart rate and how it changes from white individuals to Black individuals, and I found that interesting because those white individuals said their heart rate went up,” Oya said. “Their heart rates kind of went back down, but it was more pronounced for the white individuals. In Black individuals, their heart rate didn’t really fall back to their baseline levels after the stress.”

Oya also shared that she believes creating culture-specific interventions to target and improve the health of varying racial and ethnic groups could aid in addressing the impacts of racism on health.

“Looking at those cultural differences, racial group differences, ethnic group differences and cultural differences, I think those are tied together,” Oya said. “Looking into that, and tailoring interventions specific to those cultures and groups, I think is probably one of the most important things we could do.”

LSA senior Jane Stephenson, who was involved in the research process, said that it is important that future research continue to focus on racial differences in stress response and the long-term health impacts of chronic stress.

“We have found that there are racial differences in the stress process,” Stephenson said. “When we encounter stress, our hearts react differently depending on racial groups, and I think those individual daily reactions to stress that happen to everyone have implications for long term cardiovascular health. So, I think it’s important to have research that tells us more about if there’s a difference by race of who’s encountering stress more often, how people are reacting to stress when it occurs and how that can affect cardiovascular well-being down the line.”