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Adversity can accelerate brain aging among Black Americans

Alan Flurry

Longitudinal research studies led by faculty in the UGA Center for Family Research have changed the landscape of developmental, health, and prevention science by demonstrating its potential for narrowing social and racial disparities in health and well-being. By tracking the experiences of individual subjects over decades, prospective investigations of resilience among Black Americans have set a standard for conducting research with historically underrepresented populations that focuses on strengths rather than deficits and uses ecologically and culturally sensitive methods. Our colleagues in UGA Research Communications report a new study describing how stress and hardship experienced by many Black Americans may increase the risk of cognitive decline and dementia later in life:

In a study of 694 aging Black Americans, UGA researchers found that struggles with severe depression, loneliness and a decline in the availability of an important neurotransmitter are important factors in cortical aging, defined as the difference between an individual’s actual brain age and their chronological age.

Accelerated brain aging is a primary determinant of cognitive decline and dementia. By focusing on Black Americans, the team hoped to explain why they are nearly twice as likely as white Americans to develop dementia as they age.

“The problem is African Americans haven’t been studied nearly as much as white Americans. Most of what we know about Alzheimer’s or accelerated brain aging is based on white people,” said Ron Simons, Regents’ Professor in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Department of Sociology and the primary investigator on the study. “It turns out that the stress and hardship experienced by many African Americans takes its toll on their brains and increases risk for dementia later in life.”

Simons, also a fellow in UGA’s Center for Family Research, and collaborators investigated the relationship between brain aging and three risk factors: loneliness, depression and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a neurotransmitter that drives neuronal survival, growth and plasticity, essential factors to learning and memory.Relying on 10 years of participant data, the researchers found that all three risk factors predicted accelerated brain aging, but the effects were especially powerful for loneliness and BDNF. Severe depression and loneliness are two behavioral markers that have been linked to increased risk for dementia.

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Image: Photo courtesy of iStock Photos

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