UCLA study is first to link good mental and physical health in African-American women to strong ethnic identity

November 12, 2000

A new UCLA study examining the relationship between obesity and depression in African American women links good mental and physical health with strong feelings of ethnic identity for the first time.

The study, supported by a National Cancer Institute grant and published in the September edition of the peer-reviewed journal Preventive Medicine, surveyed 429 Los Angeles women from a culturally tailored program promoting healthful eating and exercise.

Researchers found an inverse relationship between depression and strong ties to the African American community, independent of other demographic and health factors. The survey found the lowest levels of depression among women with strong ethnic identity and less excess weight.

"Poor health likely contributes, over time, to both excess weight and depression," said lead author Judith M. Siegel, a community health sciences professor and associate dean at the UCLA School of Public Health. "Apparently, ethnic identity maximizes feelings of well-being among women who are making efforts to protect their health."

Principal investigator Dr. Antronette K. Yancey, director of the Division of Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion in the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, said the research paves the way for more effective health promotion programs.

"Ethnic identity enhancement strategies should be studied for their effectiveness in strengthening identity and for their potential in attracting individuals especially likely to benefit from programs that promote healthier lifestyles," said Yancey, who also serves as a community health sciences associate professor in residence at UCLA.

Among other study findings:
Excess weight is associated with symptoms of depression.
Poor health status, alcohol intake and hostility each are independent indicators of depression.
The association between excess weight and depression is stronger among women with high levels of education and high levels of ethnic identity.
For people of color, a strong sense of ethnic identity may buffer the impact of discrimination on psychological well-being, the research suggests, as well as play an indirect role in protecting individuals from physical risks such as high blood pressure. For example, other studies have shown that differences in blood pressure between blacks and whites are partially explained by exposure to racial discrimination and responses to unfair treatment.

"The positive experience of cultural sensitivity in the health intervention program in contrast with the experience of cultural insensitivity or discrimination in everyday life helps create positive attitudes toward the program and increases the likelihood of sticking with its objectives," Siegel said.
Information about the UCLA School of Public Health's research, education and community service programs is available online http://www.ph.ucla.edu/

University of California - Los Angeles

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