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Elderly Black woman

“The brains of Black participants in mid-life looked like the brains of older adults."

New research reveals that the brains of Black adults age faster than those of their white or Hispanic peers, putting them at greater risk for Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.

The study was published in JAMA Neurology on Monday, and examines the MRI scans of around 1,500 participants from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. It found that Black adults are more likely to develop white matter lesions as they age.

White matter lesions are areas of abnormal myelination in the brain, meaning they are markers of small vessel diseases associated with Alzheimer’s and other cognitive decline.

According to the white matter researchers found, Hispanic adults are 1.5 times more likely to experience Alzheimer’s than their white peers. Black adults are twice as likely.

Data from this study revealed that vascular disease may affect the brain earlier than previously thought, and that social influences such as racism play a large role in neurological health.

The study concludes: "Race and ethnicity disparities in aging and Alzheimer disease and related dementias may be due partially to social forces that accelerate brain aging, especially in Black middle-aged adults."

Indira C. Turney, a cognitive neuroscientist and the paper’s lead author, shared that they weren’t expecting to see brain aging so early, nor were they expecting it more frequently in the Black community.

“The brains of Black participants in mid-life looked like the brains of older adults,” she told Stat News.

Turney reiterated that the neurological differences cannot be written off as genetic factors, and are likely due to environmental factors, such as weathering. Weathering is defined as the build up of racial stressors throughout a person’s life, whether they be from discrimination, poverty, segregation, or pollution. Long-term stress is known to cause headaches, hypertension, and depression.

Despite these sociological factors, Hispanic adults did not see brain aging to the extent of their Black peers. Turney said more research is needed to fully explain the differences between the two, as Hispanic people also face systemic discrimination.

The study has since been praised for its diverse group of subjects, as the majority of Alzheimer’s research predating it involved very few Black and Brown participants.

Andrea Gilmore-Bykovskyi, an Alzheimer’s researcher at the University of Wisconsin who was not involved in the study, told Stat: “These are populations we need to be studying. Cardiovascular disease is something that is largely modifiable. This is something that can be done right now while progress toward disease-modifying drugs continues.”

If more Black Americans had access to information and healthcare, many brain and heart diseases they experience could become preventable. Turney emphasized that more must be done to reach this community.

“These are not just data points,” she said. “These are people.”

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