Dr. Uchechi Mitchell Discusses Psychosocial Outcomes for Black Americans for Aging and Equity Series
by Adam Felts
Since 2021, the AgeLab has hosted scholars who study the intersection between aging and the experiences of marginalized communities for its Aging and Equity series, a series of webinars that is open to the public. Past speakers have presented on topics such as livability, financial planning, and social determinants of health, and their pertinence to the flourishing of historically marginalized communities in the U.S.
In July, the Aging and Equity series featured Dr. Uchechi Mitchell, assistant professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Dr. Mitchell performs research on disparities in psychosocial outcomes among older adults in the United States, with a focus on the experiences of stress and resilience among the aging Black community.
Dr. Mitchell began her presentation by observing the aging of the population in the United States, due partly to longer lifespans. But boons in longevity have not been distributed equally. From birth, Black Americans live on average 5 years less than white Americans. From age 65, the life expectancy of Black Americans is one year less than whites. What is the reason for this discrepancy?
Dr. Mitchell outlined a framework of explanation for the lower life expectancy of Black Americans that focuses primarily on the experience of social, political, and economic adversity, which leads to physiological stress (known as the weathering hypothesis), exposure to risk factors such as poverty and environmental toxins and lack of access to protective factors such as educational resources (called cumulative inequality). The interaction between stressors and inequalities of resources is integrated into the exposure-disease stress model.
However, there is at least one exception to the pattern of more negative health outcomes among Black Americans: Blacks show a lower prevalence of major depressive disorders than white Americans. Numerous theories have been posited to explain this “Black-white mental health paradox,” but the most powerful, presently, focuses on adaptations in response to unique stressors. The experiences of racism among Black Americans have led to responses that increase communal resilience—the development of extended kin networks, greater religiosity, and higher levels of hope and optimism.
Dr. Mitchell noted that her research methods are divided into two tracks. Her quantitative research has been successful at uncovering disparities and inequities in the health outcomes of Black Americans, as well as factors contributing to those disparities. Her qualitative research, on the other hand, has had success in highlighting the strengths of Black Americans and their communities in coping with and overcoming unique challenges.