ST. LOUIS — New research finds that experiences of racism are associated with lower memory scores and worse cognition in midlife and old age.
The effect was especially pronounced in Black people, who are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias. Hispanic or Latino people are about one-and-a-half times as likely to have Alzheimer’s.
The study was released at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2022 underway in San Diego and virtually.
To gather their data, scientists looked at a thousand middle-aged people, including Black people, Latino people and white people.
They found a clear connection between chronic exposure to racism and interpersonal discrimination and stress, and negative impacts on the body and the mind.
Making the connection between racism and the brain
Structural racism and discrimination were identified as lower socioeconomic status; lower quality early life education; and less access to healthy food and proper health care.
5 On Your Side spoke with Sarah Lovegreen, vice president of the Alzheimer's Association, Greater Missouri Chapter, about the direct connection between racism and the brain.
"Can I get access to the food that I need?” explained Lovegreen. “Do I have stable housing and affordable housing? Can I afford my medications? So, all of those things are building and feeding into that chronic stress. And then really looking at how does that constant impact accelerates that cognitive decline?”
The answers to those questions were detailed in the AAIC report:
"Black participants were most exposed to racism at all levels. They were more likely to grow up and live in segregated areas that are known to be resource-deprived due to institutional disinvestment in Black neighborhoods.
Black participants experienced on average six civil rights violations in their lifetime and were exposed to interpersonal discrimination at least once per week.
These exposures were associated with lower memory scores, and the magnitude of the association corresponded to 1-3 years of chronological age. Structural racism was associated with lower episodic memory in the full sample."
Findings not unexpected
According to Lovegreen, the findings were not a surprise.
“In some ways, I think underscored what we already suspected in terms of how our diverse communities, Black Americans, Latino community, are experiencing life on a day-to-day basis. Some of the extra challenges they're facing through discrimination, and then that constant stress that is a result of living within that racism and discrimination,” said Lovegreen. “In some ways I wasn't incredibly surprised, but it really does help explain the differences we're seeing in the prevalence of Alzheimer's disease among Blacks and Latinos, for example.”
She hopes the new findings will help inform societal changes to reduce racism and discrimination.
“There’s a two-phased approach,” said Lovegreen. “What we at the Alzheimer's Association can do, and that’s certainly, you know, specific outreach into communities that have more impact, and our state and federal policies.”
Lovegreen said these policies will benefit all communities.