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Research Shows Black Americans May Experience Brain Aging As Early As Midlife

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Image by Trinette Reed / Stocksy
November 19, 2022
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As we deal with the impacts of an aging population, research about whose cognitive health is (and will be) affected most becomes even more important. 

According to the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, Alzheimer’s is expected to affect up to 14 million people by 2060, with minority populations most affected. Previous research from Neurology also indicated that minority racial and ethnic groups experience worse brain health later in life than White adults.

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In a new study out of Columbia University’s Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and the Aging Brain, researchers further explored the racial and ethnic disparities in cognitive health changes and brain longevity. They found that Black individuals experience accelerated brain aging1 before other groups, with markers evident as early as midlife.

The brain aging study. 

Rather than focusing on older adults (as other research has done), this cross-sectional study aimed to determine whether the known disparities in later life could be seen in midlife as well. Their participants came from two community-based cohort studies—a group of older adults and their adult children.

The sample consisted of just under 1,500 participants and included Black, Latinx, and White individuals. They used MRI scans to look at white matter hyperintensities and cortical thickness (which are associated with ​​lower cognitive performance, dementia, and mortality) and evaluated differences between age, race, ethnicity, and cognitive health. 

The study results.

“We saw differences across race in markers of both neurodegeneration and cerebrovascular disease, but the cerebrovascular disease markers were apparent in midlife,” says study co-author and professor of neuropsychology at Columbia University Medical Center Adam M. Brickman, Ph.D. “In White and Latinx people, the age-associated increase in cerebrovascular disease seems to accelerate as people enter older age, but it was already accelerated in African American people in midlife.”

So, why do the researchers believe this is happening? According to Brickman and Columbia University Medical Center postdoctoral neuroscientist and study co-author Indira C. Turney, Ph.D., it isn’t due to genetics. They propose social determinants are to blame, namely racism. 

“We know from other literature that [Black Americans] experience more social disadvantages across suboptimal environments, so that is more likely leading to the difference that we're observing in this population,” says Turney. The repeated exposure to stressors may impact brain health in a big way.

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What’s next in brain aging research?

“What's really critical is to document and capture how different groups of people age. And [there’s] a lot of work left to do, but the next steps are to understand the mediators or the mechanisms that account for brain aging in different groups of people,” says Brickman.

He adds that the ultimate goal is to be able to intervene in those mediators and causes, so we can improve the cognitive health and longevity of the diverse group of people in our aging society. 

The takeaway.

The older population is growing and also becoming more diverse—42% of older adults in the U.S. will be members of minority groups by 2050, according to Health Affairs. However, the way we diagnose, manage, and treat dementia and Alzheimer’s is based largely on studies of non-Latinx, White participants. 

Addressing disparities in brain health, continuing to advocate for minority-centered research, and using studies like this one to improve early detection, diagnosis, and treatment of Alzheimer’s in minority populations is imperative. We must take thoughtful action to care for all members of our communities, especially those most at risk. This new research is a step in the right direction.

Concerned about your own brain health? Check out mindbodygreen's roundup of memory supplements to holistically support your cognitive vitality.

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