The Surprising Impact of Racism on the Brain

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People who encounter racism in their life may be more likely to experience declining memory in middle age, according to new research presented Aug. 1 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference. The link is especially prominent among Black adults, who in the U.S. are about twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease or other related dementias as whites.

A team of researchers based out of Columbia University assessed experiences of racism among 942 middle-aged white, Latino and Black adults. They found that the Black participants were most exposed to racism on a personal level and a societal one: They were more likely to grow up and live in segregated, resource-deprived communities; and they were also more likely to experience civil-rights violations and routinely endure discrimination. And these exposures were associated with lower memory scores at midlife. 

The study’s results suggest that “efforts to increase systemic equality may also decrease risk for cognitive impairment later in life,” said Jennifer Manly, a professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the study’s senior author. More than 16 million Americans are living with cognitive impairment, a condition that affects memory, thinking and everyday decision-making, according to a 2011 statistic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“While it’s important to focus on what individuals can do to improve their own brain health, health providers need to be aware that many accumulated risks are historical and structural, and are not controlled by the individual,” Manly added. 

Previous research has uncovered similar findings. For example, Boston University researchers found an association between racism and decreased memory and cognition among a large cohort of Black women. 

The study, published in 2020 in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment and Disease Monitoring, found that women who experienced the highest levels of interpersonal racism — like racial slurs, for example — were 2.75 times more likely to report worsening or more frequent confusion or memory loss, compared with women who experienced the lowest levels of interpersonal racism. And those who reported the highest levels of institutional racism — for example, having been discriminated against in pay or promotions at work — had 2.66 times the risk of experiencing a decline in their memory and functioning.