Speaker: Life experiences, not race, create health disparities

By Maricia Guzman, NewsNetNebraska

White people outlive and have better overall health than African Americans … at least that’s what the research shows at face value, a speaker said Wednesday afternoon.

According to James S. Jackson, a researcher and professor at the University of Michigan, African Americans can improve their overall health if they just start living like a white person.

Jackson doesn’t mean African Americans need to mimic  “white lifestyle.”

The issue of disparities between white and black populations and their overall health isn’t an issue of race, Jackson said. It’s an issue of environment, overall life experiences and most importantly, societal stress.

“People become black or white because of their experiences,” Jackson said.

He added that how we classify ourselves will influence the kind of health we have overall in our lives.

On Wednesday, Jackson addressed students and professors at the Jackie Gaughan Multicultural Center on the “The Affordances Framework for Understanding Population Differences in Physical and Mental Health.”

His presentation included a collection of his own research and other studies on health disparities in different populations, more specifically white and black populations.

Jackson’s presentation revolved around the topic of stress.

He said the stress the typical African American experiences in his or her lifetime is far more than that of a white person. Issues like poverty, racism, societal pressures or stereotypes add stressors in an African American’s life that the average white person does not have to deal with, Jackson said.

Overall, whites tend to live in a protected society and have much less stress than other ethnic groups, Jackson said.

This added stress significantly harms African American and other minority group’s health.

One example Jackson gave of his findings was that when whites use drugs, alcohol, smoke or overeat that they are much more likely to experience major depression.

The exact opposite is true for blacks.

If African Americans do not use drugs, alcohol or smoke or over eat they are more likely to suffer from major depression.

“These are what we call our very perverse findings,” Jackson said.

Research shows these unhealthy behaviors are a way for African American to cope with chronic stress.

Take those substances away and as Jackson, who is black himself put it, “We go crazy, or we kill ourselves slowly with the very things we use to cope.”

Jackson gave another example of African American women versus white women on the topic of obesity.

The more education a white woman has the less likely she is to be obese.  Not true for black women. The more education a black woman has the probability of her being obese stays the same.

The findings show that black women, even if they are educated and not necessarily living in poverty, still have stressors that white women simply don’t have.

But the issue of the effects of stress on people isn’t so clear.

Jackson said that a white man living in a black neighborhood, with life experiences similar to that of a black man is more likely to have the same health issues as a black man. He is also more likely to use the same coping strategies as a black man.

The same is true for a black man living and having life experiences more similar to a white man.

The black man’s health will overall improve to match that of a white man.

Jackson said this is evidence that the issue is not about issues in health disparities among ethnic races but about population composition and the environment and life experiences of people living in these populations, regardless of race.

“Being black,” Jackson said, “is not a concrete category but the experiences that you have.”

Jackson said improving these disparities will include a mix of improving economic conditions and learning different, healthier ways to cope with stress for all people.

Jackson also mentioned what we can do to help future generations.

“To help future generations we need to address what stressors kids are experiencing and help them by creating school-based programs or doing things at home that can reduce stress,” he said.

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