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Black Americans: A link between cognitive health and financial instability

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A new study found that Black Americans trail white Americans when it comes to financial stability in midlife, which may impact brain health in old age.   

Having — or lacking — financial stability, especially for older Black Americans, can significantly impact health and cognitive function, according to a new study led by Chioun Lee, a University of California, Riverside associate professor of sociology. 

The study, “Racial Disparities in Cognitive Health Among Older Americans: The Role of Debt–Asset Profiles During Preretirement Age” was published in The Journals of Gerontology. It found that Black Americans disproportionately lack low-cost debt, meaning debt that can potentially improve one’ life, such as buying a house. According to research findings, not having enough low-cost debt may constrain Black Americans’ ability to accumulate wealth throughout their lives and across generations.

Chioun Lee

Essentially, having few or no assets in midlife, which is more prevalent among Black Americans, is linked to lower cognitive function. This is possibly because economic distress can translate into less access to high quality medical care and reduced quality of life. 

The study’s conclusions were reached through analyzing 22 years of follow-up data collected by the Health and Retirement Study, a database led by the University of Michigan and supported by the National Institute on Aging and the Social Security Administration. 

Lee and her coauthors, Dana A. Glei from the Center for Population and Health at Georgetown University, and Soojin Park, from UC Riverside’s School of Education, focused on a sample of more than 7,900 older Americans from the Health and Retirement Study. 

“As a sociologist, the one thing I want to highlight is that there is some misconception that all debt is bad. It’s not always the case,” Lee said. “While less debt can be seen as a positive thing, it also means a diminished possibility of borrowing large amounts of money at low interest rates. Over time, over generations, this situation compounds. It takes generations for Blacks and other minorities to catch up.”

The researchers discuss how institutional and structural racism shapes Black–white disparities in debt–asset profiles, such as limited access to borrowing opportunities.

“Racial minorities develop cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (AD/ADRD) at younger ages and experience more burdens for longer than their white counterparts, highlighting the urgent need for public policies that delay AD/ADRD for racial minorities,” the authors wrote. 

Lee received support from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA); Resource Centers for Minority Aging Research Center for Health Improvement of Minority Elderly under the National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Aging grant; and from the National Center for Advancing Translational Science of the National Institutes of Health under the UCLA Clinical and Translational Science Institute grant.


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