Something strange has been happening lately; every time I’m out with my mother, without fail, someone asks in earnest if we are sisters.
As a now 40-something, this is the type of occurrence that could potentially send one into a middle-aged emotional tailspin—but if you saw my mother, you’d know it’s impossible to be offended, in the least. She looks easily 10 to 15 years younger than her actual age, and frankly, is still in phenomenal physical shape (seriously, I’m trying to catch up).
Of course, my mother is no rarity. It has long been said that “black don’t crack,” as if our actual reparations are our ability to age at a significantly slower pace than our white counterparts. But while it’s long been believed that our increased melanin was the source of our prolonged youthfulness, recent research from Rutgers New Jersey Medical School says it’s far more than skin deep. In fact, it’s in our bones.
As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer, the study, published in JAMA Facial Plastics in April is titled “Long-term Patterns of Age-Related Facial Bone Loss in Black Individuals.” Researchers looked at the faces of six black men and 14 black women from all over the world between the ages of 40 and 55; their findings revealing the following:
Black people are not only born with denser bones in our faces, those bones also don’t break down as quickly—especially the bone between the eyes and the cheekbones—as our Caucasian counterparts. The result: Black faces maintain structural support for a longer period of time so we have younger-looking skin for longer.
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While with only 20 subjects the study is admittedly small, it is being lauded as the first to specifically study changes in the bone structure of black subjects. Similar studies have been done measuring the bone structure of white subjects, which provides data for comparative analysis.
“This is why black people look like themselves longer,” said 33-year-old Rutgers facial plastic surgeon Boris Paskhover, who initiated the study to better understand why black and white faces age at different rates—specifically, why bone structure degrades at different paces, notes the Inquirer.
“If we can understand what causes the face to look older, then we can perhaps one day understand how to prevent the aging process without surgery,” he added.
The study measured and compared the CAT scans of black people without any facial cancer or scarring with scans taken six to 10 years later, specifically focusing on “five key places where bone breakdown is common: the space on the forehead between the eyes, the cheekbones, the bones at the nasal opening, the orbital width of the eye and frontozygomatic junction or FZ junction, which is an unmoving point over the right eye at about 3 p.m in a mirror image.” Paskhover and his team found changes in each of these points, but their results noted that overall, “the bony features were relatively stable [in black subjects] compared with the patterns of change observed previously in the white population.”
Referring to the increased bone density of black people, Paskhover refers to black men as the “gold standard of bone health,” while black women have a notably lower rate of developing osteoporosis. Notably, Paskhover is also the doctor who helmed a 2018 Rutgers study proving that our noses look 30 percent bigger in selfies—which explains why young looking or not, I look like a turtle if I don’t hit my angles exactly right in mine.
But as Inquirer writer Elizabeth Wellington notes, our ageless beauty remains a double-edged sword.
[T]his perceived “strength” was part of why black people were considered good chattle. And when it comes to beauty, it’s why a whole host of black women—including former first lady Michelle Obama—have been historically harangued by racists who point to our strong facial features as reasons why we “aren’t as desirable” as white women. But it’s these same impenetrable and resilient bones that give black women the beauty one-up, a prolonged fountain of youth. There isn’t enough Botox in the world that can compete with Mother Nature.
And as Wellington further points out (as has The Root), just because we look younger doesn’t mean black people aren’t prematurely aging in other ways: diabetes, high blood pressure, maternal mortality, breast cancer and preterm births all disproportionately affect black communities, and the PTSD of racism has also recently been proven to dramatically affect black health outcomes.
Paskhover, who’d previously embarked on a study of facial bone density with an all-white subject pool, told the Inquirer that encountering a predominantly black population at Rutgers’ hospital compelled him to analyze the CAT scans of black people, as well.
“I wanted to turn this into an opportunity to figure out what’s happening in the black community,” Paskhover said.
“It’s really about understanding the underlying causes that will prevent aging in all people,” he added. “Right now, we tend to target the skin for underlying age problems, but maybe we should be targeting the bone.”