‘Weathering,’ the Life’s Work of Arline Geronimus

March 23, 2023

Arline Geronimus, who coined the term “weathering” to describe the corrosive effects of systemic oppression on marginalized people’s bodies, has a new book that is the culmination of almost 40 years of research furthering our understanding of how population groups who experience systemic cultural oppression, long-term material hardship, exploitation, stigma and political marginalization suffer biological aging long before they are chronologically old. In recent years of a global pandemic, environmental disaster, and economic instability, the effects of “weathering” are felt acutely. Much like an unprotected house being battered by relentless rainstorms, systemic injustice erodes the body over time, taking a physical toll—often deadly—on Black, brown, working class, and poor communities. 

Dr. Geronimus, a professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the University of Michigan School of Public Health and a research professor in the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, coined the term weathering to also signal the resilience of marginalized communities, often weathering storms together, which also can itself exact a toll on physical health. 

In her acclaimed new book, WEATHERING: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an  Unjust Society (Little, Brown Spark; March 28, 2023; Hardcover $30.00), Dr. Geronimus argues that  health and aging have more to do with how society treats us than how well we take care of ourselves. 

In writing her book, Dr. Geronimus was spurred to action by two public health travesties: US maternal  mortality rates—and particularly Black maternal mortality rates—having risen to levels the World Health Organization calls a human rights violation; and the racialized health inequities that COVID-19 death rates continue to lay bare. Both health crises captured public attention just as the country began to face a racial reckoning driven by highly publicized police shootings of unarmed Black men, women and  children.  

The effects of living in survival mode

Basing her findings over decades of research, Dr. Geronimus explains what happens to human bodies navigating the challenges and dangers of everyday life, detailing the devastating effects of perpetually living in survival mode. For example:

● Black mothers die at a rate nearly three times higher than that of white mothers.  

● Black Americans who complete college are at higher risk for heart disease than white Americans  who are not college graduates. 

● Only about half of Black 16-year-olds in high-poverty urban areas and half of white 16-year-olds  in Appalachia who live to age 50 will still be able-bodied.

● Middle-age Mexican immigrants are more likely to suffer stress-related chronic diseases if  they’ve lived in the US for more than a decade than if they’ve lived here for less time, even as  their incomes increase.  

No matter how they live and work, (and even if they are college-educated, professionally employed, and  have access to high-quality resources), members of marginalized groups suffer from accelerated aging,  early onset chronic disease, infectious and autoimmune disease, disability, and early death much more disproportionately than their  middle- and upper-class white counterparts. 

Supporting Research from PSC

Having published more than 100 articles related to “Weathering,” including first-authored publications in the New England Journal of  Medicine and other top medical, epidemiology, and public health journals, Dr. Geronimus has built the case for “Weathering” over time. A top-cited article in the American Journal of Public Health, “Weathering” and age patterns of allostatic load scores among blacks and whites in the United States,” was written by Dr. Geronimus with PSC colleagues Margaret Hicken, Danya Keene, and John Bound. The concept has influenced the study of public health, health disparities, and intersectionality, and has penetrated other domains as well; Harrison David Rivers’ play, “Weathering,” debuted at the Penumbra Theater in St. Paul last year.   

Much of the research evidence that supports “weathering” was done while Dr. Geronimus was affiliated with PSC and has involved collaborations with both PSC faculty and a generation of PSC trainee alumni, Dr. Geronimus said. Among the trainees: Tim Waidmann, Marianne Hillemeier, Jay Pearson, Cynthia Colen, Erin Linnenbringer, Linnea Evans, Annie Ro, Brenda Henry-Sanchez, Brendan Timpe, Akilah Wise, Alexa Eisenberg, Landon Hughes, Danya Keene, Aresha Martinez Cardoso, and Nicole Novak.

“Professor Geronimus has seamlessly integrated world-class research with training the next generation of scientists who are already bringing the weathering concept to new research around the world,” said PSC Director Sarah Burgard. “She exemplifies the kind of impact that interdisciplinary spaces like the Population Studies Center can have in helping to identify, understand, and pursue solutions to significant social problems.”

Dr. Geronimus is also affiliated with the Center for Research on Ethnicity, Culture, and Health. She is an elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Medicine and of the National Academies of Science, and won the James S. Jackson Distinguished Career Award for Diversity Scholarship in 2022.

Upcoming engagements

3/28/23: University of Michigan Healthcare Equity Week (keynote), 12 pm ET
3/28/23: Arline Geronimus on NPR’s Fresh Air
3/30/23: Harvard Bookstore with Linda Vollarosa (Boston AND virtual), 6 pm ET
4/10:23: Literati Bookstore with Loretta Ross, 6:30 pm ET
4/13/23: FAN (Family Action Network) in partnership with Book Stall – Chicago, IL (virtual), 7pm CT
5/19/23: Women Confronting Racism conference– Royal Oak, MI

A celebration of Dr. Geronimus’s work will be scheduled at ISR in the fall.

“Neither genetic differences nor unhealthy lifestyles are at the root of racial  health disparities in the U.S., according to this powerhouse study. Geronimus  uncovers and forcefully critiques harmful narratives in healthcare and social policy. Impassioned and persuasive, this is an essential call for change.” 
Publishers Weekly, STARRED Review  

“Insightful and well-argued. A compelling contribution to the literature on the  important issue of health care inequity.” 
Kirkus, STARRED Review