Lifetime Discrimination Associated With Increased Risk of Dementia

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A Wake Forest University study published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia, the journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, has linked people who have experienced discrimination to dementia.

“We need a better understanding of how experiences of discrimination impact health and dementia risk as well as racial and ethnic disparities in dementia,” said Mike Bancks, Ph.D., M.P.H., the study’s author. 

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Researchers used data from a medical research study conducted by The Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a medical research study that looked at more than 6,500 men and women from Baltimore, MD; Chicago, IL; Forsyth County, North Carolina; Los Angeles, CA; New York, NY; and St. Paul, MN. 

They used two methods to collect data: lifetime discrimination and everyday discrimination. To assess lifetime discrimination, participants were asked if they had faced any unjust treatment in six different areas, such as being unfairly denied a promotion or mistreated by the police. They were also asked to identify the reason for the unfair treatment, such as their race, religion, gender, physical appearance, income, or sexual orientation.

The everyday discrimination group asked participants to report how frequently they experienced any type of discrimination in their day-to-day life.

The study discovered that 42 percent of all participants in MESA reported experiencing lifetime discrimination, with a higher rate of 72 percent among Black adults. During a follow-up period of approximately 15.7 years, there were 466 newly reported cases of dementia. The risk of developing dementia was higher among individuals who reported lifetime discrimination in more than two domains than those who reported none. 

“Our findings suggest an association between greater experiences of discrimination during one’s lifetime and higher risk for dementia,” Bancks said. “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.”

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The researchers reported no variation in the intensity of the correlation between prejudice and dementia among different racial and ethnic groups.

While more investigation is required, Bancks suggested several possible pathways that may connect instances of lifelong discrimination to cognitive decline, including prolonged stress, receiving insufficient or delayed medical attention, and unidentified or untreated hypertension. 

Said Bancks: “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.” 

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