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Increased Understanding of How Social and Physical Environmental Factors Affect Dementia Risk and Disparities

Older adult woman exercising outside.

Alzheimer’s and related dementias do not affect all populations equally. Compared with White Americans, Hispanic Americans are 1.5 times as likely to develop dementia, and Black Americans are twice as likely. Despite this, NIH-funded research shows that dementia is under-diagnosed in these populations, pointing to the need for approaches to improve diagnoses in underserved communities.

Diving deeper into health disparities

Scientists are now uncovering biological mechanisms that underpin health disparities. Social stress, including discrimination, has been shown to contribute to accelerated aging of the immune system, which can play a key role in Alzheimer’s disease. In addition, high blood pressure is a risk factor for dementia and is more prevalent in Black Americans than in other racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

Through ongoing clinical studies, researchers are testing culturally sensitive interventions aimed at reducing dementia disparities by addressing risk factors and improving the well-being of people with dementia. Other scientists are examining how to tackle larger-scale issues, including health care access and delivery.

  • The cover of NIA's Advancements Build Momentum: 10 Years of Alzheimer's Disease and Related Dementias Research report.

    NIH Scientific Progress Report 2023

    Read the 2023 NIH report on scientific progress, which provides an overview of the meaningful progress researchers made between April 2022 and early 2023 in areas including drug development, lifestyle interventions, biomarker research, and more.

Environment influences brain health

Older adult woman in the garden.

Many aspects of a person’s life can affect their risk of developing dementia. These factors include everything from education and social status to where someone lives to their physical activity level. NIH-funded researchers are discovering how all these factors, collectively called the “exposome,” affect dementia.

For example, higher education levels may help preserve cognitive function and reduce the risk for dementia. Living near green spaces, such as parks and gardens, is also linked with higher cognitive function. In contrast, long-term exposure to air pollution raises the risk of dementia. Ongoing research is exploring how other aspects of the exposome, such workplace exposures and heavy metals, may contribute to dementia risk and disparities.

  • Spotlights

    Population studies reveal dementia prevalence and disparities

    A recent NIH-funded study estimates that 10% of Americans age 65 and older have dementia and that 22% have MCI. Consistent with other studies, the researchers found higher prevalence for both Black and Hispanic Americans, as well as for people with lower levels of education.

    Population studies uncover dementia risk and protective factors

    NIH-funded research has uncovered new environmental, sociocultural, and behavioral factors throughout life that are associated with dementia. Understanding whether and how these factors affect dementia risk can point to potential prevention strategies to help lower that risk.

References

nia.nih.gov

An official website of the National Institutes of Health