Cognitive Health in Racially Segregated Neighborhoods

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It’s a situation that is unfortunately all too common. An angry and offensive racist tirade happens in a public setting — someone is the unwilling recipient of this humiliating attack when they simply came there to shop or barbecue with their family and the whole affair inevitably ends up on video and starts trending on the internet for all of the wrong reasons. Sometimes the person who instigated the attack is identified and fired from their job and then makes some public apology in which they deny that they’re a racist. Some of you reading this may have been unfortunate enough to experience one of these incidents that wasn’t recorded, where you witnessed someone else being cruelly berated because of their ethnicity — or you yourself may have been the victim of such an attack.

It’s hard to say how sincere the apologies are of all of those who do try to apologize, though there are likely a number of them who sincerely do not see themselves as racist, if only because they haven’t thought about it on a regular basis all that often. The reality, however, is that whatever else they may feel, they almost certainly benefit because of policies or a society that is inherently racist. Not only do racist policies such as redlining make confrontations like this inevitable, or confrontations that become even more violent — but there’s a growing body of evidence that policies of segregation can also cause severe long-term damage to cognitive function as well.

According to a new study published by the journal JAMA Neurology, black Americans who grow up in segregated neighborhoods could be at a greater risk of cognitive decline when they reach middle age. The study followed participants and the communities in which they lived over a 25-year period. Although the researchers caution that they have not yet established a cause and effect pattern, they may have shed light on a different problem: the reason that older black Americans are significantly more vulnerable to dementia in old age than white Americans, a disparity that has largely been attributed to structural racism.

“The way we think conceptually about this is that residential segregation is really a factor upstream for a lot of other factors. When neighborhoods are segregated by race, that causes downstream effects such as low income and environmental exposures,” says the study’s lead author Michelle Caunca, Ph.D., a third-year medical student at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. While the links have long been suspected, the body of research literature studying these relationships is also relatively sparse, something that Caunca and her team hope to build upon in future research efforts.

The researchers analyzed data collected on 1,568 black individuals who took part in a Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study between 1985 and 2010. When the survey began taking data, the subjects were between 18 and 30 years old. Over the 25 year period, the individuals were examined eight times and data was recorded concerning cognitive function as well as  diet, physical activity, stress factors, and access to healthcare. The degree of segregation in their home environment was determined by using census tracts and each participant was given a score based on the degree of segregation in their neighborhood.

Those in highly segregated neighborhoods tended to be less active, with lower income and fewer years of education completed, while also scoring lower than their peers on the Digit Symbol Substitution Test (DSST), which tests processing speed, or the brain’s ability to take in and formulate a response to new information. Those exposed to higher levels of residential segregation scored on average as much as 12 points lower than the participants exposed to moderate or low levels.

Future research has yet to reproduce similar results, though this is hardly the first study to use data from the CARDIA effort to understand racial disparity when it comes to overall well-being. As neuroscience continues to advance in finding solutions to cognitive issues like dementia and Alzheimer’s, however, research like Caunca’s serves as a reminder that solving racial disparity plays a crucial part in improving mental health for the community at large.

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