Discrimination may increase risk of anxiety disorders regardless of genetics, study finds

January 14, 2021

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. (Jan. 14, 2021)-- Exposure to discrimination plays a significant role in the risk of developing anxiety and related disorders, even - in a first - after accounting for potential genetic risks, according to a multidisciplinary team of health researchers led by Tufts University and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Researchers determined that even after controlling for genetic risk for anxiety, depression, and neuroticism, greater reports of discrimination experiences remained associated with higher scores of anxiety and related disorders. The findings, recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that discrimination is a risk factor for anxiety and related disorders rather than solely a result of common genetic liability.

The study authors included researchers from Stony Brook University, University of Minnesota, in addition to Harvard's School of Public Health and Tufts.

"The study results demonstrate that discriminatory experiences can potentially cause stress and mental health problems regardless of the genetic constitution of the individual," said Adolfo G. Cuevas, an assistant professor of community health and director of the Psychosocial Determinants of Health Lab at Tufts' School of Arts and Sciences, who is first author of the study. "From regular slights in public spaces to more significant incidents, such as being passed over for a promotion or a loan, these experiences can take a toll on your mental health."

Anxiety disorders, including generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder or phobias, are the most common mental illness, affecting over 40 million people in the United States every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. While exposure to discrimination has long been established as a risk factor in the development of these disorders, the relationship between discrimination and anxiety, when factoring in the role genetics play, has remained less clear.

To gain insight on the connection, the research team used data from a national probability sample of approximately 1,500 non-institutionalized, all English-speaking adults aged 25-74 and living in the mainland United States. Approximately 49 percent of the sample were women.

Three self-report scales were used to measure discrimination and other forms of social exclusion, including: After accounting for increased genetic liability for anxiety, depression, neuroticism, and other potential genetic and sociodemographic factors, the researchers found a high degree of interdependence between discrimination and anxiety.

The team said the findings demonstrate that alleviating the impact of discrimination has the potential to improve mental health within the overall population. "Anxiety is one of the most significant issues in mental health today, and our study conclusions underscore the importance of reducing discrimination exposure and thereby improving the public's mental health overall," said the senior author of the study, Robert F. Krueger, Distinguished McKnight University Professor of Psychology at the University of Minnesota.

"These findings allow us to engage in conversations with political leaders, health officials, and community members to develop functional approaches to reduce exposure to discrimination and improve the mental health of all," David R. Williams, a study co-author and the Florence Sprague Norman and Laura Smart Norman Professor of Public Health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Williams is also a professor in the department of African and African American Studies at Harvard.

The impact of anxiety disorders is significant. Symptoms are a common associated feature of depressive disorders and, generally, account for a substantial burden of morbidity and mortality as well as long-term work disability and absenteeism. For instance, anxiety disorders are associated with several chronic health conditions, including heart disease, hypertension, and diabetes.

The researchers identified key limitations of the study, including the use of a cohort of white-identifying respondents who were predominately of European ancestry. They noted while the effects of discrimination seem to be similar across racial/ethnic groups, racial/ethnic minorities experience more discrimination than their white counterparts, placing them at an increased risk for poor mental health. In addition, questions remain about the extent to which self-reported experiences of discrimination by whites are equivalent to those of more socially stigmatized groups.
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The study uses data from the MIDUS (the study of Midlife in the United States Biomarker) study, which is supported by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network, National Institute on Aging and other funders. The development of the manuscript was partially supported by Cancer Disparities Research Network/Geographic Management Program and other supporters. See the paper for detailed information on all funders.

Cuevas, A.G., Mann, F.D., Williams, D.R., and Krueger, R. F. (2020), Discrimination and anxiety: Using multiple polygenic scores to control for genetic liability," PNAS. DOI: 20172244118

About Tufts University

Tufts University, located on campuses in Boston, Medford/Somerville and Grafton, Massachusetts, and in Talloires, France, is recognized among the premier research universities in the United States. Tufts enjoys a global reputation for academic excellence and for the preparation of students as leaders in a wide range of professions. A growing number of innovative teaching and research initiatives span all Tufts campuses, and collaboration among the faculty and students in the undergraduate, graduate and professional programs across the university's schools is widely encouraged.

Tufts University

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