The stress of poverty and racism has raised the risk of Alzheimer’s disease for African-Americans, according to researchers in separate studies just released.
Four different studies found that conditions and stressors such as a parent’s divorce, loss of a sibling, poverty or extensive unemployment can have severe consequences for brain health in African-Americans.
Further, researchers said the long history of racism in America also have taken its toll on the black population.
The University of Wisconsin researchers said their study revealed that stress literally takes years off an individual’s life in terms of brain function — an average of four years for African-Americans, compared with one and a half years for whites.
“The findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events,” said Doug Brown, director of research for the Alzheimer’s Society. “As we improve our understanding of risk factors for dementia, it is increasingly important to establish the role that stress and stressful life events play.”
Khalillah Ali, a nurse practitioner serving poor blacks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said she wasn’t surprised by the findings.
“We suffer from every illness at a higher rate,” Ali told The Final Call. “Stress, poor diet, oppression and lack of access to adequate health are our main problems. We still live on a slave diet and the soul food we take pride in eating.
“The heavy metal toxicity in aluminum can also contribute to Alzheimer’s and we eat out of metal cans, drink sodas out of metal cans, beer out of metal cans and cook out of cheap aluminum pans,” she said. “We’re toxic and lack the necessary nutrients to age properly
Previously, researchers thought blacks were at higher risk for Alzheimer’s due to, among other things, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
This new research shows that social factors like racism and poverty also play a role.
The study by Dr. Amy J. Kind, also a researcher at the University of Wisconsin, wanted to see if there was a relationship between living in poverty and a greater prevalence of dementia.
Her research team used the Census and American Community Survey data to map more than 34 million neighborhoods — blocks of 1,500 to 3000 people — based on socioeconomic data to arrive at an Area Deprivation Index. They found that the most disadvantaged neighborhoods had disproportionately higher levels of an Alzheimer’s biomarker.
“This linkage between neighborhood disadvantage and Alzheimer’s has never been explored until our work,” Kind told reporters.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, many Americans dismiss the warning signs of Alzheimer’s, believing that these symptoms are a normal part of aging. This is of even greater concern for African-Americans, who are two times more likely to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s disease than whites and less likely to have a diagnosis of their condition, resulting in less time for treatment and planning.
Ali told The Final Call that she sees the delays in her practice.
“Black people in many ways just live on the fringe of life,” Ali said. “Many have checked out mentally because they cannot deal with the rigors of poverty and racism. They need medical care and delay until something is nearly falling off. Getting old is just something that happens and losing memory and the other signs of Alzheimer’s are just what is supposed to happen.”
Diet and food play such a big role in aging as it does in every stage of life, Ali said.
“Your brain needs food. It must be nourished with the proper food for it to continue to function,” she said. “Too many people get paid or get a check and shop at the corner store that is full of processed food. That is not nourishing for the brain.”