Image of depressed or anxious older adult with head in hands
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Racial discrimination during midlife is linked to Alzheimer’s disease, a new study finds.

The report was published Wednesday in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“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,” Michelle Mielke, PhD, a study author and professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, said in a statement.

Mielke said genetic changes could be at play, but the stress of dealing with racism could also raise a person’s risk for developing dementia. Investigators combed through 17 years of data from 255 Black Americans. Data included surveys and blood samples. Specifically, they focused on biomarkers that are linked to Alhzeimer’s disease and related dementias. The team also collected details on discriminatory events the individuals faced when people were middle-aged. Then it compared that to biomarkers when the people were older.

“We found no correlations between racial discrimination and increased levels of the serum biomarkers in 2008 at Wave 5 when participants were a mean age of 46 years,” Ronald L. Simons, PhD, a study author and professor of sociology at the University of Georgia said in a statement. “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 both serum phosphorylated tau181 (p-Tau181) and neurofilament light (NfL) [two of the biomarkers the researchers examined].”

Education levels were linked to p-tau181 levels and an individual’s exposure to racial discrimination.

The team said more research is needed to understand the connection, and to specifically try to make sense of the link between Black Americans and their increased risk for dementia. 

“These findings provide evidence that the chronic stress of racial discrimination often encountered by Black Americans in midlife become biologically embedded and contribute to Alzheimer’s disease pathology and neurodegeneration later in life,” Mielke said. “This research can help inform policies and interventions to reduce racial disparities and reduce dementia risk.”