Findings of new studies that looked at racial disparities in patients with Alzheimer's disease have found evidence suggesting that social conditions such as stress of poverty and racism can increase risk of dementia in African Americans.

Social Conditions May Impact Brain Health

In four different studies presented at the Alzheimer's Association's annual conference in London on Sunday, July 16, researchers found that the conditions that have disproportionate impact on blacks such as poor living conditions and potentially disruptive events, which include divorce of parents, chronic unemployment, and loss of sibling, may have severe effect on their brain health later in life.

In one study, findings suggest that stress can take years off an individual's life in terms of brain function. In African Americans, the average is four years, which is far worse than the one and a half year for whites.

Another study found that living in a disadvantaged neighborhood is linked to later decline in cognitive function and biomarkers associated with Alzheimer's disease, the most prevalent form of dementia.

The two other studies found higher risk for dementia in people born in states marked by high infant mortality rates.

Stress Can Cause Changes In The Brain

The effects of stress and disadvantage appear to back up earlier studies that show sustained stress can cause changes in the brain. The effects may also be the consequence of cascading effects such as when disruptive events influence a person's early schooling, which then limits his achievements later in life.

Experts said that the studies provide additional evidence of racial inequities as a factor in people's likelihood for developing dementia, which suggests a need for urgent interventions.

"The findings do indicate that more should be done to support people from disadvantaged communities that are more likely to experience stressful life events. 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," said Alzheimer's Society director of research Doug Brown.

Researchers have long theorized that blacks are at higher risk for developing Alzheimer's disease due to genetics and higher rates of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases in this population. In recent years, however, researchers also looked at social factors that may increase the risk.

Stress is linked to social disadvantage and members of minority groups tend to suffer disproportionately from these disadvantages. Researchers have found that African Americans experience 60 percent more stressful events compared with white people during their lifetimes.

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