Experiences of racism are associated with dementia, faulty memory, and worse cognition in midlife and old age, especially among Black people, according to findings presented at a recent conference.
Acts of racism, from microaggressions to outright discrimination and violence towards Black, Asian, and Latinx people during their lives have a devastating impact on the way their brains work as they get older, often triggering dementia.
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.
The Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® (AAIC®) 2022, which took place in San Diego and online July 31 – August 4 helped uncover what many of us have feared to be true for a long time, and which can contribute to the mental health woes of LGBTQ people of color. What had not been so openly stated before was that this trauma is carried into mid-life and old age, and contributes to a decline in cognitive health.
Among the key findings reported at AAIC 2022 are:
● In a study of nearly 1,000 middle-aged community-dwelling adults (55% Latinx; 23% Black; 19%
White), exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism was associated with lower memory scores, and these associations were driven by Black individuals. Experiences of structural racism were associated with lower episodic memory among all racial and ethnic groups that were included in the study.
● In a study of 445 Asian, Black, Latino, White and multiracial people age 90 and above, individuals who experienced wide-ranging discrimination throughout life had lower semantic memory in late life compared to those who experienced little to no discrimination.
“In order to achieve health equity — as a step toward complete inclusion — individuals and society must identify and reduce racism and other forms of discrimination,” said Carl V. Hill, Ph.D., MPH, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the Alzheimer’s Association. “We must create a society in which the underserved, disproportionately affected and underrepresented are safe, cared for and valued.”
The various types and experiences of structural racism and discrimination contribute to systemic inequities, including: lower socioeconomic status; lower quality early life education; and less access to healthy food and proper health care. Individually and cumulatively, these factors impact brain health over the lifecourse in Black/African American, Hispanic/Latino and other communities.
“These systemic disparities are related to less access to important health-protecting resources such as high-quality care and social networks that provide valuable health information and support,” said Rev. Miriam J. Burnett, M.D., MDiv, MPH, medical director, African Methodist Episcopal Church International Health Commission.
The studies demonstrate that discrimination has an indelible impact on cognitive health and provide important insights as health care providers, researchers, legislators and regulators grapple with how to achieve health equity.
You can watch some of these findings at this Zoom link.