Researchers at two universities have discovered an associated connection between racism and memory loss.

One study looked at exposure to interpersonal and institutional racism, while the other examined discrimination throughout life. Both were associated with significant memory loss.

The studies were unveiled at the Alzheimer’s Association’s International Conference taking place this week in San Diego, California.

“It’s intuitive to think that people who endure racial discrimination will have worse health,” said Dr. Carl Hill, chief diversity officer for the Alzheimer’s Association. “But I tell you, it was surprising to learn that it would have such an effect on memory.”

The first study out of the University of California-Davis looked at 445 participants divided into three classes who were exposed to major incidents of discrimination. Their average age was 92.  

The class of mostly non-white participants showed “significantly worse” semantic memory than the mostly White class. It led researchers to conclude that “experiences of discrimination have an indelible association with cognitive health.”

The second study out of Columbia University in New York examined 942 people of different races and their exposure to daily interpersonal racism. It found that “multilevel racism related to cognition.” Additionally, the researchers concluded that racism “may be a substantial driver of racial/ethnic disparities in cognitive health.”

The findings come as no surprise to public health researchers who study racial disparities in health care.

“What we see is that racism has a weathering effects on the body,” explained Dr. Shekinah Fashaw-Walters at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. “And this can start at earlier ages and go later into life. And so that connection is created even here in these studies that we see about Alzheimer’s disease.”

Dr. Fashaw-Walters’ research focuses on health care tied to access and quality, particularly for black and Hispanic older adults in need of care at nursing homes and their own homes in the community.

“I found that racism contributes to colorblind policies which have these really detrimental impact on the diagnoses of schizophrenia or even dementia, access to care and even the quality of care,” she said.

Dr. Fashaw-Walters’ perspective is that racism has led to race-neutral policies in health care that actually work to exacerbate disparities.

“We need anti-racist solutions that aren’t race-neutral, but instead are what I would refer to you as being race-conscious,” said Dr. Fashaw-Walters.

From the perspective of the Alzheimer’s Association, it means more work to target communities experiencing these disparities.

“So we have so much work to do to get information to communities,” said the Alzheimer’s Association’s Carl Hill.  

As a part of that he emphasizes providing training around cultural competence and humility to health care providers when delivering care to African-Americans, Hispanics and Latinos.

“Because we want people to be able to really take advantage of all of the wonderful things that the health care system has to offer,” said Hill.