Posted on August 12, 2022

Racism Tied to Later Life Cognitive Dysfunction

Jim King, Medscape, August 3, 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.


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.


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.

{snip} “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.