A 2020 study explores the dementia risk factors that disproportionately effect African American teens, and that are linked to cognitive health issues later in life.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2020 Facts and Figures report, older African Americans are about twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other dementias as older white people. And according to new research published in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology, the risk factors that drive that cognitive health disparity may be apparent in people as early as their teenage years.
The new findings, presented at this year’s Alzheimer’s Association International Conference, indicated that African American teens may be at a higher risk of dementias and other types of cognitive decline later in life because they are more likely to develop a number of risk factors, including cardiovascular disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
Young African Americans are also more disproportionately affected by social factors like access to quality education, which is also a dementia risk factor.
“By identifying, verifying, and acting to counter those Alzheimer’s risk factors that we can change, we may reduce new cases and eventually the total number of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementia,” Maria C. Carrillo, Ph.D., Alzheimer’s Association chief science officer, said in a news release. “Research like this is important in addressing health inequities and providing resources that could make a positive impact on a person’s life. These new reports from AAIC 2020 show that it’s never too early, or too late, to take action to protect your memory and thinking abilities.”
The Study of Healthy Aging in African Americans (STAR) focused on 714 African American participants separated into three age groups: adolescents aged 12-20, young adults aged 21-34 and adults aged 35-56. Their cognition was initially measured using in-person tests for memory function.
Participants completed health checkups which included measuring BMI, blood pressure, blood glucose and cholesterol from 1964-1985. In 2019, the researchers used baseline testing focused on lifestyle such as education or income and their impact on cognition.
After taking into account age and gender, researchers found that those participants with diabetes, high blood pressure or two or more heart health risk factors within any of the aforementioned age groups had a higher risk of significantly worse late-life cognition.
Author Kristen George, Ph.D., MPH, of the University of California presented to the conference that “hypertension, diabetes or a combination of multiple CVD risk factors at adolescence and adulthood were common and associated with worse late-life cognition.”
The study follows research in 2018, a study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that African American participants with high blood pressure, body mass index (BMI), diabetes or history of stroke were more likely to experience impaired cognitive function, but the causal link remained unclear.
The disparity between dementia research on white patients compared to Black participants was attributed to the lack of brains donated from every population that could be studied. On the other hand, rates of dementia are 14% higher in African American populations, but awareness in their communities is lacking in comparison.
There is great importance for making Alzheimer’s research more inclusive, as there is a lack of diversity in Alzheimer’s clinical trials because many are often composed of white, financially stable individuals, but Alzheimer’s affects all racial, socioeconomic and gender identities differently. Jennifer Manly, neuropsychologist at Columbia University says treating clinical trials this way is “like being in a dark room with a single lamp, and studying only the part of the room that’s illuminated.”
Moving forward, researchers suggest that practicing heart and brain healthy activities are necessary not only in middle-aged adults, but in young adults and adolescents who are more vulnerable to deficient vascular brain health in their futures.