Study reveals link between discrimination, cognitive impairment in Hispanic adults

Sowmya Sridhar, News Reporter

Researchers from UT, Florida State University and the University of California-Davis identified a link between ethnic discrimination and cognitive impairment in Hispanic adults, according to a study published in Social Science & Medicine in October.

The study researchers used data from the California Families Project, which followed adolescents and their families over 12 years. Lead author Elizabeth Muñoz said the study focused on the 1100 Mexican-origin parents in the project, who were on average 38 years old at the beginning of study. Participants reported on the extent to which they felt discriminated against because of their Mexican origin five times across 12 years, and in the 12th year, the participants received a cognitive assessment. 

“There are disparities in cognitive health outcomes in the population,” Muñoz said. “Hispanic individuals are one and a half times more likely to develop some form of dementia.”

Hispanic individuals are one and a half times more likely to develop some form of dementia.

— Elizabeth Muñoz

Muñoz, an assistant professor of human development at the University, said since a treatment for Alzheimer’s doesn’t exist yet, the best strategy for preventing the disease is “to identify modifiable factors that contribute to Alzheimer’s disease.” The link between discrimination and cognitive impairment could be one of these factors. 

Muñoz said one group of participants, called the “High Declining” group, said they experienced high levels of discrimination that declined over time. This group had lower levels of cognitive function at the end of the study compared to the “Stable Low” group, who reported low levels of discrimination throughout the study period. 

Muñoz said the Stable Low group was composed of Mexican immigrants who took the survey in Spanish. The High Declining group, born into U.S. culture, took the survey in English. She said those more acclimated to the U.S reported experiencing more discrimination.

“Mexican-origin individuals more assimilated to U.S. culture might be occupying more diverse spaces that primarily consist of non-Hispanic whites,” Muñoz said. “Those who are low in acculturation may be staying within their communities.”

Muñoz said her team has several theories that may explain the potential link between discrimination and cognitive impairment.

“Discrimination activates a physiological stress response, and physiological stress is linked with poor cognitive health outcomes over time,” Muñoz said. “Discrimination can discourage individuals from pursuing higher education, and education is a key protective factor against cognitive decline.”

Neuroscience junior Anna Xaymongkhol said she was not surprised by the results of this study.

“Discrimination has negatively impacted (people of color) in many ways for many years, and cognitive impairment is another one to add to the list,” Xaymongkhol said in an email.

Muñoz said this research points out larger implications for medical professionals and how they should approach cognitive impairment.

“It’s important for clinicians and practitioners to be aware that their patients have (had) experiences that uniquely influence their health outcomes,” Muñoz said.