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The most common form of dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, affects over 50 million people worldwide. With its development being linked back to the accumulation of abnormal protein plaques in and around the brain cells, scientific resources have been invested in uncovering the factors that trigger this build-up.

Per past findings, demographic disparities exist when it comes to Alzheimer’s. Now, a recent study has suggested that the reason one demographic is more likely to experience the condition is because of racial discrimination.

Race, Racism, and Alzheimer’s

According to data from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), Black Americans are roughly two times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementias when compared to white Americans.

“We know that Black Americans are at an elevated risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias compared to non-Hispanic white Americans, but we don’t fully understand all the factors that contribute to this disproportionate risk,” said Michelle Mielke, a professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

There are theories on why this disparity exists, such as Black Americans being more likely to be diagnosed with conditions that can raise the risk for Alzheimer’s, like heart disease. However, there is a belief that bigotry may play a role.

To better understand the link between the exposure to the stress of racism and the increased risk for Alzheimer’s in Black Americans, Mielke, and colleagues analyzed data from a 17-year health study.

The study, called the Family and Community Health Study, was initiated in 1996. It featured data from more than 800 families across America, including 255 Black Americans. These 255 Black Americans were now featured as participants in the new study.

Besides blood samples, the 1996 study also included three interviews over 17 years that focused on discriminatory events. This included:

  • receiving racial slurs
  • being excluded from social activities
  • being treated disrespectfully by store owners, salespeople, and police officers.

In the new study, Mielke’s team also analyzed serum biomarkers that are associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. While these biomarkers are a potential measure of the disease process, their presence doesn’t automatically mean that the person is going to develop Alzheimer’s.

Link Found Between Racial Discrimination and Alzheimer’s

“We found no correlations between racial discrimination and increased levels of the serum biomarkers in 2008 […] when participants were a mean age of 46 years.

However, 11 years later when the study participants were roughly 57 years old, we found that increased discrimination during middle age significantly correlated with higher levels of [biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s and neurodegeneration.]” Ronald Simons, a professor of sociology at the University of Georgia and co-corresponding author of the study

Per the findings of the study, published in Alzheimer’s and Dementia, Black Americans who experienced racial discrimination during their midlife face a higher risk of having blood biomarkers of Alzheimer’s disease.

So why was there no correlation found between racial discrimination and biomarkers when the participants were an average of 46? Mielke explains that while brain changes can appear decades before a person develops Alzheimer’s symptoms, 46 is still a relatively young age for the increase in biomarker levels.

“An average age of 57 is still quite young; we didn’t necessarily expect to see changes this early on,” says Mielke.

What Does Racism Do to the Brain?

“These findings provide evidence that the chronic stress of racial discrimination often encountered by Black Americans in midlife become[s] biologically embedded and contribute[s] to Alzheimer’s disease pathology and neurodegeneration later in life.”Michelle Mielke

Granted, the study’s findings are based on observational data, and more research is needed. Yet, the research does raise the issue of how racism can affect long-term health and longevity.

Nathaniel Harnett, PhD, is director of the Neurobiology of Affective and Traumatic Experiences Laboratory at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts, and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Speaking to EverdayHealth, Dr. Harnett said the findings provide an important look into the effects of racialized stress on health for minorities.

Dr. Harnett says that the evidence on how chronic stress impacts the brain and body is “pretty overwhelming”,

“And I think researchers now are starting to realize what other scholars of racism have known for a while, which is that racism — in its many forms — can be a chronic stressor,” says Harnett.

According to published research, exposure to racial discrimination has been consistently linked to depression, anxiety, substance use, and even PTSD.

Negar Fani, PhD is a neuropsychologist and associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Fani researches trauma, including racial trauma, and accessible interventions for trauma-related problems. Speaking to EverdayHealth about the study, she said that the findings provide compelling evidence of how racial discrimination is contributing to health disparities and further validates the importance of racism as a problem at a global public health level,

“Hopefully the findings are also validating to Black Americans and other minoritized communities who sometimes experience self-doubt about what they’ve experienced and how it impacts them,” says Dr. Fani.

Can Addressing Racism Counter Alzheimer’s Risk?

As more studies still need to be conducted, researchers have yet to understand just how racism affects the brain’s pathways. However, as the latest study attempted to answer this question, Mielke believes that the findings will serve to help medical practitioners better identify those individuals who are at the highest risk and possibly intervene to improve outcomes.

So, how would that work?

Dr. Fani suggests that it may be time to start screening for racism in a medical setting,

“Just like we screen for factors such as family history or psychiatric issues like depression, I think screening for the experiences of racism is critical to help identify people at risk for certain health conditions,” she says.

Dr. Harnett echoed this statement, pointing out how the American Public Health Association named racism as a public health crisis several years ago,

“I think there is understanding that systemic interventions — rather than purely individually focused ones — are needed to address the issues of racism in the United States,” he says.

Want to know more?

Cardiovascular disease kills more than 50, 000 Black American women every year, and Black American women are more likely to die of heart disease, and at a younger age. In examining the risk factors, one study found that black women who experienced structural racism faced a 26% higher risk of coronary heart disease.

References

Gibbons, F. X., Etcheverry, P. E., Stock, M. L., Gerrard, M., Weng, Y., & Kiviniemi, M. (2010). Exploring the Link between Racial Discrimination and Substance Use: What Mediates? What Buffers? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(5), 785. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0019880

Harb, F., Bird, C. M., Webb, E. K., Torres, L., & Larson, C. L. (2023). Experiencing racial discrimination increases vulnerability to PTSD after trauma via peritraumatic dissociation. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 14(2). https://doi.org/10.1080/20008066.2023.2211486

MacIntyre, M. M., Zare, M., & Williams, M. T. (2023). Anxiety-Related Disorders in the Context of Racism. Current Psychiatry Reports, 25(2), 31-43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-022-01408-2

Nadimpalli, S. B., James, B. D., Yu, L., Cothran, F., & Barnes, L. L. (2015). The Association Between Discrimination and Depressive Symptoms among Older African Americans: The Role of Psychological and Social Factors. Experimental Aging Research, 41(1), 1. https://doi.org/10.1080/0361073X.2015.978201

Simons RL, Ong ML, Lei M-K, et al. Racial discrimination during middle age predicts higher serum phosphorylated tau and neurofilament light chain levels a decade later: A study of aging black Americans. Alzheimer’s Dement. 2024; 1-10. https://doi.org/10.1002/alz.13751

MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba

Pie Mulumba is a journalist graduate and writer, specializing in health, beauty, and wellness. She also has a passion for poetry, equality, and natural hair. Identifiable by either her large afro or colorful locks, Pie aspires to provide the latest information on how one can adopt a healthy lifestyle and leave a more equitable society behind.

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