Alzhiemer’s disease has become so common in the Black community that some consider memory loss a normal part of aging. But according to a new study, racial “weathering” could be contributing to the high number of Black adults who are developing the brain disorder earlier than their non-Black peers.
Research published Nov. 14 in the journal JAMA Neurology shows that Black adults were experiencing brain aging much quicker than other groups.
While Latinx and white adults had cases of small vessel cerebrovascular disease — a condition associated with Alzheimer’s and stroke — later in life, many Black adults were experiencing it at the beginning of midlife.
The researchers concluded that “weathering” — or the chronic exposure to social and economic discrimination — could be causing Black people to age faster.
“The cumulative impact of social, physical, and economic adversities, often faced by individuals from historically excluded populations lead to earlier health deterioration and advanced biological aging, which may be caused by chronic or reoccurring stressors,” the authors wrote.
Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that slowly destroys memory and thinking abilities. And over time, the disease makes simple tasks like cooking a meal or driving a car challenging to complete.
An estimated 6.5 million Americans age 65 and older — or one-in-nine — are living with Alzheirmer’s, but disparities in the disease persist. Older Black adults are about two times more likely than white adults to develop the condition.
And while most adults develop Alzheimer’s at age 75 or older, research shows that Black folks are getting conditions that lead to the disease earlier — possibly because of racism.
How Stress Caused By Racism Leads to Early Aging
Racism in the United States has forced generations of Black people to experience poverty, political disenfranchisement, and violence.
According to a 2020 poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, 71% of Black Americans say they’ve experienced some form of racial discimiantion or mistreatment in their lives. 48% reported that they’ve felt their life was in danger because of their race.
And at the same time, Black people consistently rank poorly compared to other communities in birth outcomes, mental health, heart disease — and as noted, Alzheimer’s disease.
The concept of “weathering” was first coined by researcher Arline T. Geronimus in 2006 to explain the impact of constant stress caused by racism.
“The stress inherent in living in a race-conscious society that stigmatizes and disadvantages Blacks may cause disproportionate physiological deterioration, such that a Black individual may show the morbidity and mortality typical of a white individual who is significantly older,” Geronimus and her team wrote.
Black People Worry About Recieving Care for Alzheimer’s
While disparities in Alzheimer’s persist among Black Americans, only 20% say they have access to competent care for the disease and other dementias.
And for the ones who’ve sought care for a loved one, half report experiencing discrimination, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
If a cure does arise for Alzheimer’s, only 53% of Black folks believe it will be distributed fairly — without regard for race, color, or ethnicity.
Meanwhile, researchers say part of the reason why Blacks are underrepresented in some studies that mostly include older people is because they’re dying too early.
“Previous findings show that Black adults have higher mortality and morbidity rates and lower life expectancy, resulting in fewer Black adults surviving to older ages, compared with White adults. Thus, midlife Black adults with disproportionately high WMH volume may be less likely to survive to older ages or participate in research studies.”
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