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Disadvantages Raise the Risk of Dementia for African-Americans

Alissa Sauer
By Alissa SauerSeptember 6, 2017

Recent studies explored the racial disparities in people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and found that the stress of living in disadvantaged neighborhoods may substantially increase the risk of dementia among African-Americans.

Learn more about these studies and the impact of social factors on brain health and the risk of dementia.

Studies Show Racial Inequities Play a Role in the Risk of Dementia

In four separate studies, researchers concluded that conditions that disproportionately affect African-Americans – including poor living conditions and stressful life events – may have a severe impact on brain health later in life.

One of the four studies from the University of Wisconsin concluded that stress can reduce brain function by years, while another study from Wisconsin found that living in a “disadvantaged” neighborhood was correlated to cognitive decline later in life and even an increase in biomarkers for Alzheimer’s.

Researchers studied the effects of high stress events on brain health. African-Americans reported more than 60% of these stressful events and the study linked these events with lower cognitive function.

Stressful events included:

  • Family bankruptcy
  • Parents with alcohol-related problems
  • Problems in school

Researchers also concluded that the participants from the most disadvantaged areas performed worse in every aspect of cognitive testing and had higher levels of biomarkers for Alzheimer’s.

The other two studies from Kaiser Permanente and University of California San Francisco found a link between dementia and people born in states with higher rates of infant mortality. Researchers found that African-American participants born in one of the 10 states with the highest infant mortality rates had a 40% higher risk of dementia than African-Americans not born in states with high infant mortality rates.

It is unclear if the effects of stress and social disadvantage is a direct result or the result of associated factors, like when a particularly stressful event affects education and then limits achievement later on in life.

The Environmental Impact on Dementia

Other studies have suggested that African-Americans are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s due to genetics and higher rates of other risk factors, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, hypertension and obesity. More recently, researchers believe that social factors may also increase the risk of dementia.

Physician and researcher at the University of Wisconsin, Amy J. Kind, says, “This linkage between neighborhood disadvantage and Alzheimer’s has never been explored until our work.”

Megan Zuelsdorff, epidemiologist with the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, says:

“No one’s looking at the same kind of things, but the research all dovetails really well. It is the social environment that’s contributing to disparities.”

She went on to say that these studies suggest interventions are needed in these communities to help reduce the impact of racial inequities on brain health. She also said that none of the studies bring good news, except that they are able to be changed.

What do you think about the role of race and social disadvantage in Alzheimer’s and dementia? We’d like to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

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Alissa Sauer

Alissa Sauer

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