Racism Tied to Later Life Cognitive Dysfunction

Jim Kling

August 03, 2022

It is generally understood that racism, whether structural or personal, harms the well-being of the individual who experiences it. It has harmful health effects, and it contributes to ethnic inequality. New evidence shows that the experience of racism is associated with worse cognitive function in later life.

That was the fundamental message behind two studies presented at a press conference at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.

"We know that there are communities like black African Americans and Hispanic Latinos who are at greater risk for developing Alzheimer's or another dementia," said Carl Hill, PhD, who served as a moderator during the press conference. He pointed out that the genetic and lifestyle factors linked to dementia tell only part of the story. "It's important that the science also examines the unique experiences of those at greater risk for dementia in our society," said Hill, who is Alzheimer's Association chief diversity equity and inclusion officer.

Racism, Memory, and Cognition in Middle-Aged Patients

Jennifer J. Manly, PhD, professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University, New York, presented a study of experience of racism and memory scores among a highly diverse, middle-aged cohort.

"There's little understanding of how the multiple levels of racism — including intrapersonal, institutional, and structural racism — influence cognitive aging and dementia risk," Manly said during the press conference.

Among 1,095 participants, 19.5% were non-Latinx white (61% female, mean age 57), 26.0% were non-Latinx Black (63% female, mean age 56), 32.3% were English-speaking Latinx (66% female, mean age 50), and 21.2% were Spanish-speaking Latinx (68% female, mean age 58).

The researchers used the Everyday Discrimination (ED) scale to measure experience of individual racism, the Major Discrimination (MD) scale to measure experience of institutional racism, and residential segregation of the census block group for an individual's parents to measure residential segregation. Outcome measures included the Digit Span to assess attention and working memory, and the Selective Reminding Test to assess episodic memory.

The study found a clear association between racism and cognition. "The association of interpersonal racism to memory corresponds to 3 years of chronological age, and was driven by non-Hispanic black participants. Next, there was a reliable relationship between institutional racism and memory scores among non-Hispanic black participants, such that each reported civil rights violation corresponded to the effect of about 4.5 years of age on memory," said Manly.

"The bottom line is that our results suggest that exposure to racism is a substantial driver of later life memory function, even in middle age, and especially for Black people," Manly added.

The results should alert physicians to the complexities of racism and its impact. "Health providers need to be aware that many accumulated risks are historical and structural, and not controlled by the individual. Maybe more importantly, the medical system itself may perpetuate discriminatory experiences that contribute to worse health," said Manly.

Latinx Concerns

Also at the press conference, Adriana Perez, PhD, emphasized the challenges that Spanish-speaking Latinxs have with healthcare. Just 5%-7% of nurses are Latinx. "The same could be said for physicians, for clinical psychologists...as you look at the really critical positions to address brain health equity, we are not represented there," said Perez, an assistant professor and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.

She also pointed out that Latinx representation in clinical trials is very low, even though surveys performed by the Alzheimer's Association show that this population values medical science and is willing to participate. In fact, 85% said they would participate if invited. The trouble is that many clinical trial announcements state that participants must speak English. Even the many Latinos who are bilingual may be put off by that wording: "That is a message that you're not invited. That's how it's perceived," said Perez.

Racism and Cognition in the Elderly

At the press conference, Kristen George, PhD, presented results from a study of individuals over age 90. "Racial disparities in dementia have been well characterized, particularly among those people who are aged 65 and older, but we don't know very much about the oldest old individuals who are aged 90 and older. This group is one of the fastest growing segments of the population, and it's becoming increasingly diverse," said George, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of California, Davis.

The group enrolled 445 Asian, Black, Latinx, white, and multiracial individuals who were members of Kaiser Permanente Northern California, with a mean age of 92.7 years. They used the Major Experiences of Discrimination Scale to assess discrimination.

The researchers divided them into three groups based on gender, race, and responses to the 10-item scale. Class 1 included largely white men who had reported workplace discrimination, with an average of two major discrimination experiences. Class 2 was made up of white women and non-whites who reported little or no discrimination, with an average of 0 experiences. Class 3 included all non-white participants, and they reported a mean of four discrimination experiences.

Using class 2 as a reference, executive function was better among class 1 individuals (beta = 0.28; 95% CI, 0.03-0.52) but there was no significant difference between class 3 and class 2. Class 1 had better baseline semantic memory than class 2 (beta = 0.33; 95% CI, 0.07-0.58), and those in class 3 performed significantly worse than class 2 (beta = –0.24; 95% CI, –0.48 to –0.00). There were no between-group differences in baseline verbal or episodic memory.

Perez, Manly, George, and Hill have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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