Study: Homophobic Lives are 2.5 Years Shorter

Anti-gay prejudice is significantly linked to earlier death.
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Phillie Casablanca/flickr

Problem: It starts with stress. Chronic stress has a well-known link to greater risk for disease, and even death. Stress comes from many sources, of course, but one of those sources can be prejudice. Previous research has shown that the stress hormone cortisol increased in white people with high levels of racial prejudice when they were interacting with someone of another race. And a different survey found that having a high level of prejudice against black people was linked to higher mortality rates in whites.

In a new study, published in American Journal of Public Health, researchers at Columbia University and the University of Nebraska looked at whether anti-gay prejudice could similarly be linked to mortality.

Methodology: The study uses data from the General Social Survey-National Death Index, looking at GSS results from 1988 to 2002, and mortality information from the NDI up to 2008, only looking at heterosexuals. To measure homophobia, the GSS uses questions like “Do you think that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?” and “Should a man who admits that he is homosexual be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?”

The researchers accounted for socioeconomic status, health, and demographics when looking at the link between homophobia and mortality, to rule those factors out as predictors. They also controlled for racial prejudice and religiosity, both of which have been linked to anti-gay prejudice.

Results: The GSS shows that anti-gay prejudice is significantly associated with less education and conservative ideologies. As individuals became more educated, they were less likely to express homophobia.

With regard to mortality, even after controlling for demographic factors, there was still as significant association between homophobia and mortality risk. The difference in life expectancy between those who expressed prejudice and those who did not was 2.5 years. The researchers also looked at specific causes of death—homophobia was linked to cardiovascular-related deaths, but not cancer.

Implications: Referencing the previous study that linked racial prejudice with increased mortality risk, the researchers note that it was unclear from that study whether the risk could be generalized to prejudice in general.

“Thus, our ability to document a relationship between a different form of prejudice 
(i.e., antigay attitudes) and mortality risk suggests that the effects of prejudice on population health may have a broader reach than originally thought,” the researchers write. This study shows that prejudice may be a public health risk not just for the discriminated-against, but for the discriminators as well.


The study, "Anti-Gay Prejudice and All-Cause Mortality Among Heterosexuals in the United States," appeared in American Journal of Public Health

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Julie Beck is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Health Channel.

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