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Racism is related to memory loss and can worsen cognition, new study shows

Research found that Black people are more likely to suffer memory loss in old age, which was correlated to their exposure to racism and discrimination.
Dragana Gordic
Research found that Black people are more likely to suffer memory loss in old age, which was correlated to their exposure to racism and discrimination.

Black people are about twice as likely as their white counterparts of the same age to suffer from Alzheimer’s or other dementias, according to a report released by the Alzheimer's Association.

The prevalence of memory-related diseases is also greater among Hispanic and Latino adults, who are about one and one-half times as likely to develop cognition problems as white people, according to the 2022 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures report, which reviewed the results of many studies on cognitive decline.

Genetic differences don't explain the increased likelihood that a Black or Hispanic person will develop dementia, the report, released earlier this month, says. Instead, the report points to structural racism — the differences in life experience, socioeconomic indicators and health conditions that older Black and Hispanic people face compared to their white peers.

"There's an exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism, which has been associated with lowering memory scores, and these associations were driven especially by Black individuals," said Lindsay Walker, the executive director of the Cleveland chapter of the Alzheimer's Association.

Those who told researchers they had experienced workplace, housing and financial discrimination during their lives all scored lower on memory and cognition tests than people who reported they did not, the report found.

“Chronic exposure to racism and interpersonal discrimination among marginalized communities leads to stress that affects the body and influences physiological health and likely contributes to the development of cognitive decline,” wrote Jennifer Manly, a professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and who helped author the report.

“Overall, our findings indicate that racism impacts brain health and contributes to the unfair burden of Alzheimer’s disease in marginalized groups," Manly wrote.

In a study of nearly 500 Asian, Black, Latino, multiracial and white people ages 90 and older, people who experienced discrimination throughout life had lower semantic memory, compared to those who experienced little to no discrimination, according to the Alzheimer's Association, which is raising awareness of the issue.

Semantic memory is the long-term memory of facts and information that is not related to specific events that a person experienced in their past.

In another study of 1,000 middle-aged Black, Latino and white adults, exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism was associated with lower memory scores. The results were worse for Black people included in the study.

Walker said the research confirms the health disparities that many experts have already started to address.

"This is something that we've probably known all along, but now we have the research behind it," she said, "and it's just something that we need to keep our finger on."

There is a lot of work to be done in this area, Walker added.

"Educating is the first step that we need to do and through the education is also building trust," she said. "We need to make individuals feel that they are getting good information, the right information and, in turn, the right care."

In Ohio, at least 27 cities and counties have declared racism a public health crisis, the second-highest number of municipalities that have passed declarations across the United States, according to the American Public Health Association (APHA).

Lisa Ryan is a health reporter at Ideastream Public Media.