February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.
“Anti-gay prejudice is associated with elevated mortality risk among heterosexuals, over and above multiple established risk factors for mortality,” wrote the researchers, led by Mark L. Hatzenbuehler of Columbia University.
In fact, those who were not highly prejudiced against gay people lived an average of 2.5 years longer than those who were.
The research team linked mortality rates to responses on the General Social Survey that indicated anti-gay prejudice, based on these four questions:
- If some people in your community suggested that a book in favor of homosexuality should be taken out of your public library, would you favor removing this book, or not?
- Should a man who admits that he is a homosexual be allowed to teach in a college or university, or not?
- Suppose a man who admits that he is a homosexual wanted to make a speech in your community. Should he be allowed to speak, or not?
- 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?
The researchers acknowledged that the questions represent “a limited range of potential indices of anti-gay prejudice,” adding that the effect of such prejudice may actually be larger than they were able to measure.
The respondents included in the study were 20,226 heterosexuals who participated in GSS interviews between 1988 and 2008, 4,216 of whom had died by the end of the study period.
The researchers wanted to make sure they were really seeing a link between earlier death and anti-gay prejudice — not something else that might be associated with being anti-gay — so they controlled for variables that could have confounded the results, including age, income, education, marital status, gender, religiosity, and even racial prejudice.
After implementing all of those controls, the researchers found a “2.5-year life expectancy difference between individuals with high versus low levels of anti-gay prejudice.” Specifically, they wrote, anti-gay prejudice was “associated with increased risk of cardiovascular-related causes of death.”
Why anti-gay people die younger
While the study was not designed to determine why people with anti-gay attitudes might die younger than their less prejudiced peers, the authors offered some educated guesses.
Anger is an integral part of anti-gay prejudice, especially among heterosexual men. “Physiological changes associated with anger, such as increased cardiac responses, have been linked to the development of hypertension and to coronary heart disease,” wrote the authors.
In other words: People who get angry every time they see a gay wedding in the newspaper or a same-sex couple at the grocery store may actually have a higher risk of heart disease.
Further still, earlier research on racial discrimination has found that when people are prejudiced, interacting with those they are prejudiced against is stressful. And chronic stress is terrible for overall health. The researchers note that if stress responses “are continually activated, prejudiced individuals may ultimately be at elevated risk for long-term disease outcomes, as well as mortality.”
The good news? Anti-gay prejudice is on the decline, and the new study indicates that this cultural shift may have positive implications for public health.
Sure, a more liberal attitude toward LGBT people won’t boost lifespan the way quitting smoking or exercising will — but the researchers’ preliminary evidence indicates that it can’t hurt.
“It’s a very good thing that Americans’ attitudes toward homosexuality have been moving in the direction of tolerance and acceptance in recent years,” writes Tom Jacobs, of Pacific Standard. “This research suggests such a shift may produce a major, unexpected side benefit: longer lives.”