Scientists have long known that black people carry a higher level of DNA from people of African descent. But in a study published Monday in Nature Genetics, scientists at Stanford University suggest that individuals with black ancestry who have limited exposure to black genes could be at an elevated risk for multiple types of cardiovascular disease.
“Many ethnic groups are starting to understand the ways in which their genetics impacts their health,” said Kara A. Shuler, a professor of medicine and pathology and a senior author of the study. But “the [African American] community is very important in informing the debate because it’s the population most affected by this issue.”
This is the first scientific research to tie the use of black-only labeling to an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease. For this study, Shuler and her colleagues analyzed DNA from 95 African American adults over the age of 65 whose mothers had either black or white ancestry. Each sample was sequenced, and a combination of genome information and genetic markers revealed that individuals with black ancestry who had limited exposure to African genes were more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes risk factors.
A previous Stanford study published earlier this year suggested that populations with a higher amount of genetic ancestry from members of African descent are healthier, but this is the first time the team has connected the practice of black-only labeling to a biological consequence.
The research suggests that an ongoing American race debate is an easy way to avoid speaking about the genetic relationship to ethnic diversity and tolerance.
“Almost since its founding, the United States has been talking about how to value people on the basis of things that are personal and built around culture,” Shuler said. “This case really brings us back to talking about things that are genetic.”
Perhaps surprisingly, African Americans are more likely to have genetic links to people of another race, a result Shuler attributes to the first freed slaves who recently immigrated to this country.
“The discussions in the U.S. right now about race keep us focused on being perceived as one thing,” Shuler said. “When we can step back and talk about all of our humanity and the different ways people are kindled, I think that we can all be more empathetic, more accepting and better listeners.”
This article was written by Zack Stanton, a news reporter at The Washington Post and first appeared on The Washington Post.