Racism Linked to Memory Problems in Study on African American Women

African American women who experience racism may be at a greater risk of developing memory problems, according to a study.

The research involved 17,320 participants of the Black Women's Health Study, which explores variables including racism and subjective cognitive function (SCF), a measure of a person's memory skills with a lower score meaning more problems. The findings were published in the journal Alzheimer's & Dementia: Diagnosis, Assessment & Disease Monitoring.

The team hypothesized that experiencing racism frequently could affect memory due to the former's link with stress. More than 50 percent of African Americans reported they experienced institutional or daily interpersonal racism in a 2017 survey cited by the researchers. Institutional racism includes having pay or promotions in the workplace withheld due to race, while daily racism might include verbal slurs.

The women filled out questionnaires, with one on SCF probing whether they had more trouble than usual remembering recent events, a short list of items, and things from one second to the next. They were also asked whether they had difficulty understanding spoken instructions, following TV show plots, and finding their way on familiar streets.

Questions on racism included whether they had received poorer servicesthan others in restaurants or stores; if people acted as if they were not intelligent; if others behaved as if they were afraid of them; and if they had been treated unfairly due to their race in the workplace, by police, at school, and when trying to find a home.

Of all the participants, 60 percent were deemed to have good SCF, 28 percent moderate, and 12 percent poor. On average, the participants were aged 64 years old. Women who reported the highest levels of racism in the research were 2.75 times more likely to have lower levels of SCF when compared with those at the lowest end of the scale. Participants who experienced institutional racism had a 2.66 higher chance of having poor SCF than those who didn't.

Depression and insomnia, which can both make cognition worse, may be mediating factors for the link, the team said.

The study was limited because the researchers did not measure the participants' SCF repeatedly over time, according to the team.

African Americans are more likely to experience dementia and Alzheimer's than their white counterparts, the authors said citing existing research. Separately, racial discrimination has been linked to health issues that can affect cognition, such as depression, sleep problems, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

A part of the brain called the hippocampus plays an important role in storing memories, and is one of the first areas to change in Alzheimer's disease. It also has lots of receptors which bind for the stress hormone cortisol. In turn, chronic stress is linked with a smaller hippocampus and issues with memories dependent on this part of the brain in older people.

More research is needed to explore whether experiencing racism puts a person at great risk of developing dementia, or increases biomarkers linked to the condition, the team said.

Senior author Lynn Rosenberg, a professor of epidemiology at Boston University School of Public Health and a principal investigator of the Black Women's Health Study, said in a statement: "Our work suggests that the chronic stress associated with racial discrimination may contribute to racial disparities in cognition and Alzheimer's disease."

Rosenberg told Newsweek via email: "The study provides an important example of the pernicious effect of experiences of racism on the cognitive/memory health of individuals subjected to racism. An abundance of data indicates that African Americans in general have a higher rate of Alzheimer's Disease than other Americans. Racism is likely a contributor to this."

She went on: "In terms of what an individual might do, there is evidence that 'healthy living' characterized by exercise and a healthy diet are factors that are related to a lower onset of Alzheimer's Disease. The investigators plan next to study factors such as these in relation to SCF to see if they ameliorate the adverse effects of racism on cognitive/memory health."

This article has been updated with comment from Lynn Rosenberg, and the title of the journal.

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A stock image shows two people comforting one another. Scientists have investigated whether racial discrimination affects memory. Getty