You’ve probably heard the expression “black don’t crack,” a reference to black women’s ageless beauty. But though their skin may be smooth and wrinkle-free on the outside, black women are aging faster than white women on the inside, health experts say.
Dr. Michelle Gourdine, a former deputy secretary of health and chief public health physician for Maryland, explains that extreme stress causes wear and tear on our internal organs, contributing to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke in black women—all diseases of aging. “The cells that make up your heart, your blood vessels, whatever else, begin to age prematurely because of all the stress, and that predisposes you to disease,” says Gourdine, author of Reclaiming Our Health: A Guide to African American Wellness.
She points to a 2010 National Institutes of Health study titled “Do US Black Women Experience Stress-Related Accelerated Biological Aging?” The study’s authors analyzed data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation and found that black women between the ages of 49 and 55 are 7.5 years biologically “older” than white women.
“US blacks are more likely to experience stressful situations, such as material hardship, interpersonal discrimination, structural discrimination in housing and employment, and multiple caregiving roles than whites,” the authors wrote.
According to the study, this cumulative impact of overexposure to stress hormones takes a toll on the body and contributes to the development or progression of such ailments as “cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, susceptibility to infection, carcinogenesis, and accelerated aging.”
“What the article seems to imply is that we just have a heavier load to carry, bottom line,” says Gourdine, currently a clinical assistant professor in the departments of pediatrics and of epidemiology and public health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, and a senior associate at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “When you think about black women and how we’re all raised to be strong and that’s what we expect each other to be as African-American women, what comes with that is a set of added responsibilities.”
Gourdine points to how black women are often the primary breadwinners in their families and have to juggle multiple roles—sometimes navigating a culturally insensitive workplace while also acting as caregivers for children, grandchildren and ailing parents. And for black women in high-powered positions, there’s an even greater risk, she says.
“In meetings where you’re the only woman or only African American, you feel like all eyes are on you,” Gourdine says. “You feel that pressure to perform, of proving that you’re good enough and that you do work hard. There is stress from always having to be ‘on.’”
Those expectations are compounded by our cultural expectations of “strong black women,” she continues. “We are expected to be independent and not ask for help, keep our needs inside and not admit that we need help,” she says.