Racial Discrimination in Midlife Linked to Higher Risk of Alzheimer’s Disease

A new study has found that racial discrimination experienced by Black Americans during midlife is associated with an increased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

The findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, shed light on the factors contributing to the disproportionate risk of Alzheimer’s and other dementias among Black Americans.

Michelle Mielke, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and co-corresponding author of the study, emphasizes that racial disparities in Alzheimer’s disease cannot be solely attributed to genetic differences. “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,” Mielke said. She suggests that exposure to racism and its associated stress may increase the risk of dementia.

The research team analyzed 17 years of data from the Family and Community Health Study, a multi-site and longitudinal investigation that included more than 800 families in the U.S. The study focused on a sample of 255 Black Americans, collecting data through interviews and blood draws every two to three years to study their health and well-being.

The researchers measured racial discrimination by surveying individuals about discriminatory events they experienced, such as disrespectful treatment by store owners, salespeople, or police officers, being called racial slurs, being excluded from social activities, and not being expected to do well because of being a Black American.

The study team also analyzed serum biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, including serum phosphorylated tau181 (p-Tau181), a marker of Alzheimer’s pathology; neurofilament light (NfL), a non-specific marker of neurodegeneration; and glial fibrillary acidic protein (GFAP), a marker of brain inflammation.

Ronald L. Simons, Ph.D., professor of sociology at the University of Georgia and co-corresponding author of the study, noted that while no correlations were found between racial discrimination and increased levels of serum biomarkers when participants were a mean age of 46 years, the results changed significantly 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 both p-Tau181 and NfL,” Simons said.

These findings provide evidence that the chronic stress of racial discrimination often encountered by Black Americans in midlife becomes biologically embedded and contributes to Alzheimer’s disease pathology and neurodegeneration later in life. Mielke emphasizes the need for future studies to focus on the challenges and racism experienced by Black Americans to further understand their risk of dementia.

“These findings can help inform policies and interventions to reduce racial disparities and reduce dementia risk,” Mielke said. By addressing the issue of racial discrimination and its impact on brain health, researchers and policymakers can work towards developing targeted interventions and support systems to improve the well-being of Black Americans and reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

The study’s findings highlight the importance of considering social determinants of health, such as racism and discrimination, in understanding the complex factors that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease. As research continues to uncover the links between racial discrimination and brain health, it is crucial to develop comprehensive strategies to combat racism and promote health equity for all individuals, regardless of their race or ethnicity.

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