How Polluted Areas Contribute to Alzheimer’s in Black Adults

There’s a long, racist history as to why Black Americans fled to major cities in the United States. Decades later, air quality in those areas has grown unhealthy, and new studies have shown it can negatively impact cognitive health. A study by Duke and Columbia Universities found that older, non-white adults are more likely to live in areas with environmental injustices, potentially hurting their mental health. 

Alzheimer’s and environmental risk

“What our study found was that people who are at risk for Alzheimer’s and who also happen to be Black Americans tended to live in areas that are more likely to have air pollution than their white counterparts,” explains P. Murali Doraiswamy, MBBS, FRCP, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine, and senior author of the study, “now what needs to happen is to follow these individuals longitudinally over the next four to five years to see if indeed that living in higher areas of higher air pollution does lead to greater risk for Alzheimer’s or not. So that second link we have not yet made in our study.”

The possibility of a correlation between location and Alzheimer’s among Black Americans is worrying. Already, 21.3% of Black Americans live with Alzheimer’s who are ages 70 and older. Alzheimer’s is a type of dementia that affects memory, thinking, and behavior. The quality of life can drastically decrease for those who have it. 

How Black people landed in environmentally unfriendly locales

Dating back to the Great Migration, one of the most significant movements in history, when Black Americans relocated to densely populated areas facing environmental injustice. Black Americans escaped the Jim Crow South and fled to cities where they could find work up north. When they settled, they faced housing discrimination, segregation, and more, leading to socioeconomic disadvantage.

Toxic materials

“Black Americans tend to live in older houses that have more exposure to lead and asbestos. They also tend to live in areas exposed to more toxic dump sites. They also live in areas with higher air pollution and possibly even water pollution,” says Dr. Doraiswamy. The injustices in these areas can be traced back to the housing inequality during the Great Migration. 

Though Dr. Doraiswamy’s research didn’t focus on it, studies comparing brain health and location have been done before. “There’s a whole other area of research that was not done by us that does link worst air pollution to cognitive deficits through a number of different pathways,” Dr. Doraiswamy elaborates.

Higher ozone levels

Higher ozone may be linked to cognitive problems, and fine particulate matter and dust can lead to them if you have asthma. For example, with breathing problems, there’s less oxygenation of the brain, which, in turn, can result in some cognitive issues.” 

How we can protect Black Americans from environmental injustice

There’s no quick solution to purifying air quality and expecting people to relocate from their homes can be unrealistic. Therefore, it’s best to encourage your politicians to dedicate their time to this issue. “The Environmental Justice Index is an open database posted by the Environmental Protection Agency. Let’s say you’re living in one particular neighborhood—you can put your address into this database, pull up all the metrics related to your neighborhood, and it will tell you how bad or good your neighborhood is relative to all the other neighborhoods in the state and the country. If you fall in the bottom 15-20%, you should print out that data and take it to your policymakers, town council, local member of Congress, and local senator and say, ‘Hey, you got to do something about this.'” 

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