Picture this: Black and Hispanic women, having survived decades of discrimination in the United States, find themselves face-to-face with menopause — that moment that marks the end of menstruation — way too early. And it’s not because Mother Nature is playing favorites.
Indeed, a new study published in the June 29 edition of the International Journal of Epidemiology found that Black and Hispanic women reached menopausal age about 1.2 years earlier than white women. The investigators contribute the gap to “weathering” — a concept that argues that chronic exposure to racism causes early health deterioration.
The researchers reviewed data from the Study of Women’s Health Across the Nation (SWAN) — an ongoing research project launched in 1994 to analyze the physical, biological, psychological, and social changes occurring during menopause.
While the project includes 3,300 participants across five racial and ethnic groups, and various backgrounds and cultures, the scientists noticed many postmenopausal Black and Hispanic women were excluded because of the age requirement.
The SWAN team recruited women between 42 and 52 who were menstruating to track their menopause experience, but several Black and Hispanic women had already started menopause by that age.
Alexis Reeves, a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University’s School of Medicine, told Scientific American the age standards were based on data from mostly white populations.
“We were able to quantify the racial differences in the rate of exclusion from SWAN due to earlier menopause, and then statistically account for it in SWAN’s data,” Reeves said in a statement. “We found that Black and Hispanic women had statistically significant earlier natural, and particularly surgical, menopause than white women. The study suggests that this common bias may lead to underestimation of racial disparities in health and aging, and is important to consider in further research.”
The SWAN study is one of the first to note weathering as a way to understand racial disparities in research, particularly with data to support its claims.
“The implications of these findings are incredibly important to understanding the true burden of racial disparities in women’s health and indicate that researchers need to be more thoughtful about eligibility criteria and the potential for underestimating racial disparities in longitudinal health studies,” Siobán Harlow, professor emerita of Epidemiology and senior author of the study, said in a statement.
Reeves also noted that “mistrust of the medical system due to historical injustices is an important part of the lack of inclusion of minoritized populations in studies.”
“However, this study suggests that eligibility criteria — and the given age for inclusion into studies — set by researchers themselves also plays an important part in exclusion of minorities from studies,” she said.
She and her team are committed to bringing attention to selection bias to help address disparities.
“Accounting for data biases in future studies will allow us to better understand and address the negative health outcomes of these marginalized populations,” Harlow said.
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