There Is a “Protective Effect” of Being Poor and Black?
By D.A. Barber
A controversial new study concludes that blacks who experienced hunger and “adversity” as kids seem to maintain better mental cognitive skills as seniors. Being food-deprived, and thinner than average, in childhood apparently is a big plus.
The study, published Dec. 11, 2012, was led by Dr. Lisa L. Barnes at Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago.
Studies dating back decades have shown restricting caloric intake may delay various age-related body changes and increases lifespan. But the new study suggests three forms of “adversity” in childhood (poor learning environment, poor health, and living in poverty) actually slow mental decay in only African-Americans.
The study involved more than 6,100 older folks with an average age of 75 and made up of 61 percent African-Americans, 38 percent Whites, with the rest Hispanic or unknown ethnicity. These seniors were asked about their childhood health, their family’s financial circumstances, and their home learning environment. Then, every three years for 16 years, they underwent cognitive testing.
Nearly 6 percent of African-Americans who frequently went hungry as children and the over 8 percent who were thinner than normal showed declining mental function a third slower than those who were never hungry.
The problem is that researchers found no relationship between any of the three childhood adversity factors and mental decline among the White participants.
One glaring flaw of the study is that only a tiny number of the Whites reported experiencing adversity as kids – especially in terms of poverty and positive learning environment – raising the possibility of biased recall of childhood events. The African-Americans and Whites in the study – drawn from a single, narrow urban site – had other significant differences: The African-Americans tended to be younger, had fewer years of education, and had lower cognitive scores from the start.
“Because relatively few Caucasians in the study reported childhood adversity, the study may not have been able to detect an effect of adversity on cognitive decline in Caucasians,” Barnes said.
Nevertheless, researchers came to some preliminary conclusions that have raised eyebrows: A selective survival effect for Blacks which helped those who withstood hunger and adversity became more resilient later in life.
“Markers of early-life adversity had an unexpected protective effect on cognitive decline in African Americans,” notes the report. “The protective effect of adversity in older African-Americans was unexpected and the biological basis of the association is unknown.”
The conclusion fly’s in the face of another recent study, published December 21, 2012, where University of Southern California researchers found: “There was consistent evidence that ME [minority ethnic] older adults with dementia tended to have greater diagnostic delays and higher levels of cognitive impairment and behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia at initial evaluation than their non-Hispanic White counterparts.”