Stressful Life Events Take Greater Cognitive Toll on African Americans Than Whites

By Sullivan, Michele G. | Clinical Psychiatry News, August 2017 | Go to article overview

Stressful Life Events Take Greater Cognitive Toll on African Americans Than Whites


Sullivan, Michele G., Clinical Psychiatry News


LONDON -- Not only did African Americans report experiencing more stressful experiences across their lifespans than did whites, but they had more cognitive consequences from them as well, an observational study showed.

In fact, the weight of these experiences affected cognition even more than traditional risk factors like genetic status and even age, Megan Zuelsdorff, PhD, said at the Alzheimer's Association International Conference.

"Lifetime stress is associated with poor cognitive health in everyone, but African Americans report more stressful events, and those events are associated with greater cognitive detriment," said Dr. Zuelsdorff, an epidemiologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "The experience of stressful events is an important predictor of executive function and appears to be a great contributor to the disparities in cognitive function that we see--partly due to exposure and partly to vulnerability."

Racial disparities have long been evident in the development and progression of dementia, Dr. Zuelsdorff said. Socioeconomic factors are also important players in this scenario. Stress, likewise, has long been linked to poorer cognitive health. "But, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of stress and cognition. The contribution of stress to well-established socioeconomic impacts on health is unclear, and the research focus here has always been on events happening in midlife and onward.

But, it's crucial to expand this window of time backward to include earlier years. If we look at a graph of cognitive function across the lifespan, the rate of decline doesn't vary much. What we do see is that blacks, starting at midlife, are closer to the clinical threshold of cognitive impairment and may reach the threshold at an earlier age. What this said to me is that we needed to look at these earlier life factors that could bring someone to this state of lower cognitive function in midlife."

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Dr. Zuelsdorff and her colleagues analyzed data from the Wisconsin Registry for Alzheimer's Prevention to examine this question. The observational study comprises 1,500 adults being followed for 15-20 years and is enriched for those with a family history of Alzheimer's disease. The main goal of WRAP is to understand the biologic, medical, environmental, and lifestyle factors that increase a person's risk of developing Alzheimer's disease.

Subjects have a study visit every 2-4 years that includes a full physical and cognitive work-up. At one visit, Dr. Zuelsdorff said, they were asked to complete a questionnaire concerning 27 different stressful life events. These experiences were deeply disturbing and potentially life altering. They included childhood experiences, such as parental abuse, alcoholism, and flunking out of school, and adult experiences, such as combat experience, bankruptcy, or the death of a child. …

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