Stress and poverty may explain high rates of dementia in African-Americans

According to the researchers at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, harsh life experiences appear to leave African-Americans vulnerable to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Several teams of researchers presented evidence that stressful life, poverty and disadvantage are issues that are associated with cognitive problems in middle aged individuals, that can later lead to dementia among African-Americans.

These findings explain why African-Americans have twice as much chances when compared to white Americans, to develop dementia. This research suggests that generic factors are not major contributors.

Megan Zuelsdorff explains that the increased risk is a matter of individual experience, trather than ancestry.

For years, the scientists have struggled to understand the reason why African-Americans are more likely to develop dementia. They are also more likely to have diabetes and high blood pressure, which affects the brain in the long run. Previous researches have found some evidence that African-Americans carry the risk because they likely carry genes that can raise the risk of these types of diseases.

Rachel Whitmer, an epidemiologist, says that more recent studies suggest that those conclusions are not complete. She was involved in multiple studies that accounted for genetics risks of disease like dementia in black and white Americans. She says that the racial differences are still visible.

This research suggests that the missing factors involve unfavorable life experiences since early childhood. This kinds of experiences are linked with number of diseases like cancer and heart disease.

Whitmer says that we are gradually starting to understand how early life deprivation and stress can increase the risk of some kind of health complications later in life. She also adds that they are now trying to understand why and how it can affect our brain.

Whitmer’s team wanted to know how people that grew up in harder conditions than others, were more likely to develop dementia. In order to find out, they looked at people who had been born in a state that has a high infant mortality rate.

These people left their state and moved to northern California, but still, there was a strong association between being born in a state with high rate of infant mortality, and increased risk of dementia.

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin, presented the results on their study of the link between mental function and stressful life. The study included more than 1.300 people, which were in their 50s and 60s. 82 of them were African-Americans.

Stressful experiences of the participants included legal issues, being fired from a job, the death of a child, financial insecurity and drinking problems. African-Americans reported 60% more stressful events than white Americans. But this is one part of the differences, because the impact of the stressful events was much stronger in African-Americans than in white participants that were not Hispanic.

The researchers were able to discover this by implementing tests that are designed to reveal the flexibility and the speed of the brain in doing certain tasks. These are abilities that decline as the years pass by. That prompted the team to look for evidence that the stressful events accelerated this decline.

What they have found is that when white participants experience a stressful event, the event itself adds about 18 months to normal brain aging. In African-Americans however, these types of events aged their brain an extra four years.

According to the researchers, their next challenge is to find out how stressful life experiences can change the human brain. This means that they need to look at the effects of the stress hormones and see if that stress can lead to brain inflammation, which is a thing that is often times associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

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