Poor memory, cognitive decline and racism

Posted 12/31/69

NATIONWIDE — Experiences of structural, interpersonal and institutional racism are associated with lower memory scores and worse cognition in midlife and old age, especially among Black …

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Poor memory, cognitive decline and racism


NATIONWIDE — Experiences of structural, interpersonal and institutional racism are associated with lower memory scores and worse cognition in midlife and old age, especially among Black individuals, according to studies reported recently at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference (AAIC) 2022 in San Diego, CA. 

Among the key findings were:

In a study of nearly 1,000 middle-aged community-dwelling adults (55 percent Latinx, 23 percent Black, 19 percent white), exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism was associated with lower memory scores. 

Experiences of structural racism were associated with lower episodic memory (memories that include what, where and when the event happened) among all racial and ethnic groups that were included in the study.

In a study of 445 Asian, Black, Latino, white and multiracial people aged 90 and above, those who experienced wide-ranging discrimination throughout life had lower semantic memory (memories that include meaning, understanding and knowledge about the world), in late life, compared to those who experienced little or 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, 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.” 

According to the Alzheimer’s Association 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. 

Various types and experiences of structural racism and discrimination contribute to systemic inequities, including poverty and lower social 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, Latin 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, medical director, African Methodist Episcopal Church International Health Commission. 

“The consistent and pervasive lack of resources, as well as social and environmental factors, lead to disparities in other health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes, which increase the risk for Alzheimer’s

and other dementias,” said Adriana Perez, assistant professor of nursing at University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing. 

Multilevel racism associated with lower memory scores 

Research suggests interpersonal and structural racism are contributors to racial and ethnic disparities in cognitive aging. However, there’s little understanding of how multilevel racism influences cognition throughout the life course. To address this gap in knowledge, Dominika Šeblová, postdoctoral researcher in the Gertrude H. Sergievsky Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team of researchers with expertise in health equity, assessed experiences of interpersonal, institutional and structural racism among 942 middle-aged adults (mean age=55; 64 percent women, 55 percent Latinx, 23 percent non-Latinx Black and 19 percent non-Latinx white). 

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. 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 one to three years of chronological age. “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,” said Jennifer Manly, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the senior author of this work. “Overall, our findings indicate that racism impacts brain health and contributes to the unfair burden of Alzheimer’s disease in marginalized groups.” 

Contributed by the Alzheimer’s Association Hudson Valley Chapter.

Alzheimer's Association, racism, cognition, Black Americans, Latin Americans, dementia


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