It is well-known that African Americans suffer from higher rates of heart disease than their fellow citizens. There is significant, if not conclusive, evidence that racism-driven stress is a likely factor.
Hopeful new research suggests schools can help prevent, or at least delay, the onset of this damaging dynamic. The key is creating an atmosphere in which people of all kinds are welcomed and valued.
"When schools emphasize the value of diversity, students of color are healthier," writes a research team led by University of Washington psychologist Cynthia Levine. This positive effect was found even after taking into account other factors that could affect student health, including student-teacher ratios and the kids' socioeconomic status.
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Levine and her colleagues describe a study featuring 270 healthy eighth graders attending 120 different schools in the Chicago area. They examined each school's official "mission statement," which is posted on the institution's website, and noted whether or not it placed particular emphasis on the importance of diversity.
A school qualified as placing that emphasis if its mission statement included diversity-oriented goals such as "preparing students to live in a multicultural or global world; "meeting students' cultural needs;" or including "racially or cultural diverse perspectives in the curriculum," such as literary works from a variety of cultures.
The eighth graders' health was evaluated using a variety of factors, including obesity, blood pressure, and blood tests that measured both levels of inflammation and insulin-resistance. High levels of inflammatory biomarkers forecast greater odds of heart disease and stroke; abnormal levels of glucose and insulin are warning signs for diabetes.
Students of color who attended schools that overtly valued diversity had, among other positive results, lower levels of inflammation and insulin resistance than their counterparts in schools that did not. White students' health was not affected by the wording of the mission statements.
The researchers suggest the students of color likely feel a stronger sense of belonging in the diversity-oriented schools, which lowers the stress levels that can produce these negative bodily reactions.
"The schools in our sample whose mission statements did not mention diversity were not directly communicating anything negative about race and ethnicity to their students," they note. "Instead, we find that the presence of an additional positive factor relevant to race, emphasizing diversity, predicts better health."
Needless to say, the wording of the mission statement doesn't have magical power. Rather, such schools are likely to offer "a more welcoming environment" to students of color, Levine and her colleagues write.
"Schools that emphasize diversity may have more teachers of color, include the perspective of people of color in the curriculum to a greater degree, or have fewer racial disparities in academic success or disciplinary rates," they add. "This, in turn, could mean students of color feel better understood, valued, and supported, which is associated with better health."
The results suggest schools can play a significant role in reducing health inequities by simply updating their mission statements—and then living up to the new wording. Whether you have a heart attack in your fifth decade may be determined in part by how welcome you felt in fifth grade.