Discrimination. Cultural bias. Social injustice. Systemic inequality.
They have been part of the American experience since the founding of our nation. But right now, we are doing something that we as a society haven’t been willing to do for a very long time. We are talking about them, openly and honestly. And making a sincere attempt to listen to each other, and to bring about real change.
Each of us will be measured by whether we joined that discussion, or stayed silent and acquiescent.
Except that in the rare moment we find ourselves in right now, the latter is not even an option.
Anyone who has the kind of platform that I do is obligated to speak up. So that is what I am doing today. In both my personal life and in the work I do promoting brain health and the prevention of dementia, I see the impact of bigotry and inequity in ways that I am compelled to call out and work to address.
I want to begin this conversation being completely transparent, so you know what in my own life has shaped my views on race.
My son, Adam, is Black. As the parent of a young Black man in America, I don’t have the luxury of being blind to what it means to be Black in this country. I understand that every day of his life, he lives in a different America than I live in, because I have seen it in his experiences, big and small.
I can’t say my son has been denied opportunities that would have been available to him if he were white. When it came time for him to apply to college, he was accepted at both Harvard and Yale. He pursued his education, earned a Ph.D., and today he is an assistant professor of economics at a major university.
I am proud of him, but I do not delude myself. I know that despite all that he has accomplished in his life, on any given night, he could get into his car to go out on a routine errand, and be pulled over for no reason other than the color of his skin.
This is not hypothetical. He has experienced that in his life, as so many Black men have. And it could — and almost assuredly will — happen to him again at some point.
And if it’s the wrong night, and the wrong officer, it won’t matter that he has a Ph.D. It won’t matter that he’s a college professor. It won’t matter that he’s unarmed and has done nothing wrong. If he doesn’t understand the situation he’s in, and if he is not able to swallow his anger and indignation and subjugate himself in ways that have been used to emasculate Black men dating back to the days of Jim Crow and before, he could be shot by a police officer.
That is the America he lives in.
But if he becomes a parent, it does not have to be the America his son or daughter grows up in.
The murder of George Floyd by the police officer who knelt on his neck, and the outpouring of indignation from people of all races, has opened a national dialogue that is much needed and long overdue. It calls upon us to face ugly truths, and address systemic inequalities.
We have the opportunity as a nation to come together, take action, and make changes — not just in policing, but in everything from education to health care to social and public policy.
There is much work to be done. And God knows, one of the most urgent needs is in the field of health care that GoCogno.com is devoted to.
The racial disparity in the prevalence and treatment of mild cognitive impairment and dementia is deplorable, and the impact that has on people of color is devastating.
When you look at all adults age 65 or older, statistics show that Blacks are twice as likely to have Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, compared to Caucasians of the same age, and Hispanics are anywhere from one to one and a half times as likely to have dementia.
Certain races are more susceptible to certain diseases. But that is not what is happening here. Black people are not more likely to suffer cognitive impairment and progress to dementia because of some genetic vulnerability. Rather, it is a product of a lifetime of social and economic disadvantage.
Back in 2017, a whole spate of studies confirmed the greater degree to which Blacks in America are at risk for dementia based on their life experiences.
- A study in Wisconsin found that even one stressful event early in life can add four years of aging to the brain, and on average, young Black people experience 60 percent more of such events.
- Another study showed the Blacks born in states with the highest rates of infant mortality carry a 40 percent greater risk of dementia than Blacks born in other states, and an 80 percent greater risk of dementia compared to Caucasians from other states.
I could point to so many other aspects of the American condition that leave people of color more prone to dementia in the later years of life, but let me highlight a few.
The rate of Alzheimer’s has actually been declining over the past few decades, and one reason for that is higher levels of education. Someone with a college degree is at much lower risk of dementia. Yet, this is an advantage that Black people do not realize to the degree that Caucasians do.
While disparities in the rates at which young people of color enroll in college immediately after high school are leveling out — 63 % for Black students and 62 % for Hispanic students, compared to 68% for Caucasian students — the college graduation rate continues to lag.
Black students attending college have the highest dropout rate and the lowest six-year completion rate of any ethnic group.
Less access to quality health care
Poverty, joblessness and other factors disproportionately result in Blacks being less likely to receive adequate health care. People of color are more likely to have untreated hypertension, stress, diabetes or other chronic conditions that increase the risk of dementia.
During the coronavirus crisis, the Black population has been hit far harder by the virus. Now, we’re learning that people affected by COVID-19 are more likely to suffer cognitive damage as a result. This is yet another example of the vicious cycle where inadequate health care leads to cognitively worse outcomes for people of color.
Proper nutrition and brain healthy eating are among the best defenses against cognitive decline and dementia. People who eat a balanced, healthy diet and limit or avoid junk food, processed food and fast food are significantly less likely to get Alzheimer’s.
However, in many American cities, neighborhoods that are predominantly Black or Hispanic are “food deserts” where fresh, whole foods and vegetables are largely unavailable, leading to consumption of unhealthy foods stocking the shelves of convenience stores.
Here’s something that is rarely talked about or even acknowledged in the world of brain health. One of the more significant risk factors for dementia is having been incarcerated at some point in one’s life. We know that the criminal justice system disproportionately charges, convicts and incarcerates Black men. Time served in jail, even early in life, can contribute to the prevalence of dementia later in life.
Disparities in Alzheimer’s research
Black people disproportionately suffer from dementia, but when it comes to Alzheimer’s research, they are largely missing from the equation. The vast majority of research is conducted by white researchers, doing studies that involve a white population. Recent efforts to bring greater diversity to Alzheimer’s research are commendable, but still amount to a pittance of change in a field of science where virtually everything we know about this devastating disease is derived from research focused on people of western European descent.
When I consider how grave the dementia crisis is in our Black population, I think back to the commercials I used to see on television promoting the United Negro College Fund. The slogan of the UNCF is one that most of us can repeat by heart. “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
That indeed it is. It is a terrible thing to waste early in life, when a proper education can shape the future of a young person, and it is a terrible thing to waste later in life, when the wisdom and experience that a mature mind has to offer is stolen from families and communities by the ravages of dementia.
Black lives matter, and Black minds matter. Here at GoCogno.com, I am examining what I do and how I do it, and looking for ways to better serve the portion of my audience that comes to brain heath from a place of greater vulnerability due to systemic disadvantage.
I welcome your thoughts and suggestions about that. I invite you to challenge me, educate me and help me. I know I can do better. I know American can do better. We can and we must.