Race and Resting-State Heart Rate Variability in Brazilian Civil Servants and the Mediating Effects of Discrimination: An ELSA-Brasil Cohort Study

Psychosom Med. 2016 Oct;78(8):950-958. doi: 10.1097/PSY.0000000000000359.


Objectives: African Americans are characterized by higher heart rate variability (HRV), a finding ostensibly associated with beneficial health outcomes. However, these findings are at odds with other evidence that blacks have worse cardiovascular outcomes. Here, we examine associations in a large cohort from the ELSA-Brasil study and determined whether these effects are mediated by discrimination.

Methods: Three groups were compared on the basis of self-declared race: "black" (n = 2,020), "brown" (n = 3,502), and "white" (n = 6,467). Perceived discrimination was measured using a modified version of the Everyday Discrimination Scale. Resting-state HRV was extracted from 10-minute resting-state electrocardiograms. Racial differences in HRV were determined by regression analyses weighted by propensity scores, which controlled for potentially confounding variables including age, sex, education, and other health-related information. Nonlinear mediation analysis quantified the average total effect, comprising direct (race-HRV) and indirect (race-discrimination-HRV) pathways.

Results: Black participants displayed higher HRV relative to brown (Cohen's d = 0.20) and white participants (Cohen's d = 0.31). Brown relative to white participants also displayed a small but significantly higher HRV (Cohen's d = 0.14). Discrimination indirectly contributed to the effects of race on HRV.

Conclusions: This large cohort from the Brazilian population shows that HRV is greatest in black, followed by brown, relative to white participants. The presence of higher HRV in these groups may reflect a sustained compensatory psychophysiological response to the adverse effects of discrimination. Additional research is needed to determine the health consequences of these differences in HRV across racial and ethnic groups.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Black People / statistics & numerical data
  • Brazil / ethnology
  • Government Employees / statistics & numerical data*
  • Heart Rate / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Racial Groups / statistics & numerical data*
  • Racism / ethnology
  • Racism / statistics & numerical data*
  • White People / statistics & numerical data