Experiencing discrimination throughout life linked to greater dementia risk

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Experiencing discrimination in any form can be distressing in the moment, but researchers from Wake Forest University suggest that people who continually face bias throughout their lives are more likely to develop dementia.

“We need a better understanding of how experiences of discrimination impact health and dementia risk as well as racial/ethnic disparities in dementia,” says Mike Bancks, Ph.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of epidemiology and prevention at Wake Forest University School of Medicine and corresponding author of the study, in a university release.

The research team made use of data originally collected by the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a medical research study featuring over 6,500 men and women from six communities across the United States (Baltimore, Chicago, Forsyth County, North Carolina, Los Angeles, New York City, and St. Paul). Researchers contacted each person by phone and asked them to engage in five follow-up in-person clinical exams between 2000 and 2018.

This process helped study authors gather self-reported data pertaining to experiences of lifetime and everyday discrimination. To gauge lifetime discrimination, participants revealed whether they experienced unfair treatment in six domains. For example, not receiving a promotion or encountering bias from police. Participants also had to report the reason they believed they received unfair treatment — such as race, religion, gender, physical appearance, income, or sexual orientation. For the everyday discrimination scale, participants reported the frequency with which certain experiences of unfair treatment occurred in their typical day-to-day life.

'Racism is a virus' sign at Black Lives Matter protest
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

Discrimination against any group leads to higher dementia risk

This led to the discovery that the prevalence of experiencing any lifetime discrimination was 42 percent among all MESA participants. However, it was much higher among Black adults specifically (72% with experiences of discrimination). Over an average follow-up period of 15.7 years, the study recorded 446 incident cases of dementia. Those who reported lifetime discrimination in more than two domains (in comparison to none) showed a higher dementia risk.

“Our findings suggest an association between greater experiences of discrimination during one’s lifetime and higher risk for dementia,” Prof. Bancks explains. “In alignment with other MESA findings, it’s clear that Black adults bear an unequal burden of exposure to discrimination, and discrimination is harmful to health.”

The research team also mentioned that the strength of association between discrimination and dementia did not differ by race or ethnicity.

According to Prof. Bancks, there are a few potential mechanisms that could link experiences of lifetime discrimination to cognitive impairment. These mechanisms include chronic stress, receiving inadequate or delayed health care, and undiagnosed or untreated hypertension.

“Future studies should assess how the accumulation of experiences of discrimination are related to dementia risk to help guide strategies to intervene on discrimination and dementia risk,” Prof. Bancks concludes.

The study is published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia.

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