Racism is associated with lower memory and worse cognition especially among Blacks, according to studies released at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference® 2022 in San Diego.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s annual 2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, Blacks are about twice as likely and Hispanic/Latinos are about one and one-half times as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
Lower socioeconomic status; lower quality early life education; and less access to healthy food and proper health care are a few of the types and experiences of structural racism and discrimination that contribute to systemic inequities, according to the facts and figures report.
“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 Hill, Ph.D., MPH, chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at the Alzheimer’s Association, in a press release. “We must create a society in which the underserved, disproportionately affected and underrepresented are safe, cared for and valued,” he added.
In a study of nearly 1,000 middle-aged community-dwelling adults (55 percent Latino; 23 percent Black; 19 percent 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, presented during the conference held July 31-Aug. 4.
Experiences of daily interpersonal racism were measured by the everyday discrimination scale, according to Jennifer Manly, Professor of Neuropsychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Research found that non-Hispanic Black participants had the highest mean exposure to daily racism compared to Latinos and Whites. In addition, on average, Black participants experienced interpersonal discrimination at least once every week. They were more likely to attribute those experiences to their race, ancestry or skin color, said Prof. Manly.
In terms of institutional racism, non-Hispanic Black people experienced almost six civil rights violations on average in their lifetime, she stated. Researchers also found that at least half of the Black and Latino participants lived in segregated neighborhoods during childhood, compared to only about eight percent of the White participants.
“The bottom line is that our results suggest that exposure to racism is a substantial driver of later life memory function, even in middle age, and especially for Black people,” said Prof. Manly. “Our results suggest that efforts to increase systemic equality may also decrease risk for cognitive impairment later in life,” she added.
A key solution is to achieve health equity is for individuals and society to identify and reduce racism and other forms of discrimination, recommended Dr. Hill.
Through its diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, the Alzheimer’s Association is partnering with more entities, including the National Association of Hispanic Nurses and the African Methodist Episcopal Church to address these barriers patterned by racism, he said in a news briefing on Aug. 1.
“Racism is trauma that leads to increased stress, which we know can result in negative biological changes such as inflammation. Inflammation is a known risk factor for cognitive difficulties including dementia, but because of systemic health disparities that create poor access to health, medication, housing, health protecting resources, those who experience racism are not provided a pathway to lower their risk,” said Dr. Hill.
“It becomes a one two punch for populations that experience this type of deprivation,” he added.
—Charlene Muhammad, National Correspondent