On a melancholy Saturday this past February, Shalon Irving's "village" — the friends and family she had assembled to support her as a single mother — gathered at a funeral home in a prosperous black neighborhood in southwest Atlanta to say goodbye.
The afternoon light was gray but bright, flooding through tall, arched windows and pouring past white columns, illuminating the flag that covered her casket. Sprays of callas and roses dotted the room like giant corsages, flanking photos from happier times: Shalon in a slinky maternity dress, sprawled across her couch with her puppy; Shalon, sleepy-eyed and cradling the tiny head of her newborn daughter, Soleil. In one portrait, Shalon wore a vibrant smile and the crisp uniform of the Commissioned Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, where she had been a lieutenant commander. Many of the mourners were similarly attired. Shalon's father, Samuel, surveyed the rows of somber faces from the lectern. "I've never been in a room with so many doctors," he marveled. "... I've never seen so many Ph.D.s."
At 36, Shalon had been part of their elite ranks — an epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pre-eminent public health institution in the U.S. There she had focused on trying to understand how structural inequality, trauma and violence made people sick. "She wanted to expose how people's limited health options were leading to poor health outcomes," said Rashid Njai, her mentor at the agency. "To kind of uncover and undo the victim-blaming that sometimes happens where it's like, 'Poor people don't care about their health.' " Her Twitter bio declared: "I see inequity wherever it exists, call it by name, and work to eliminate it."
Much of Shalon's research had focused on how childhood experiences affect health later on — examining how kids' lives went off track, searching for ways to make them more resilient. Her discovery in mid-2016 that she was pregnant with her first child had been unexpected and thrilling.
Then the unthinkable happened. Three weeks after giving birth, Shalon collapsed and died from complications of high blood pressure.
The researcher working to eradicate disparities in health access and outcomes had become a symbol of one of the most troublesome health disparities facing black women in the U.S. today: disproportionately high rates of maternal mortality. The main federal agency seeking to understand why so many American women — especially black women — die, or nearly die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth had lost one of its own.
In recent years, as high rates of maternal mortality in the U.S. have alarmed researchers, one statistic has been especially concerning. According to the CDC, black mothers in the U.S. die at three to four times the rate of white mothers, one of the widest of all racial disparities in women's health. Put another way, a black woman is 22 percent more likely to die from heart disease than a white woman, 71 percent more likely to perish from cervical cancer, but 243 percent more likely to die from pregnancy- or childbirth-related causes. In a national study of five medical complications that are common causes of maternal death and injury, black women were two to three times more likely to die than white women who had the same condition.
An expanding field of research shows that the stress of being a black woman in American society can take a physical toll during pregnancy and childbirth. Chronic stress "puts the body into overdrive," Lu said. "It's the same idea as if you keep gunning the engine, that sooner or later you're going to wear out the engine."
Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, coined the term "weathering" for stress-induced wear and tear on the body. Weathering "causes a lot of different health vulnerabilities and increases susceptibility to infection," she said, "but also early onset of chronic diseases, in particular, hypertension and diabetes" — conditions that disproportionately affect blacks at much younger ages than whites. Her research even suggests it accelerates aging at the molecular level; in a 2010 study Geronimus and colleagues conducted, the telomeres (chromosomal markers of aging) of black women in their 40s and 50s appeared 7 1/2 years older on average than those of whites.
Weathering has profound implications for pregnancy, the most physiologically complex and emotionally vulnerable time in a woman's life. Stress has been linked to one of the most common and consequential pregnancy complications, preterm birth. Black women are 49 percent more likely than whites to deliver prematurely (and, closely related, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday). Here again, income and education aren't protective.