Yale Study Finds Childhood School Segregation Leads to Cognitive Disparities in Older Black Adults

A new study from Yale University has identified early-childhood school segregation as a contributor to the significant cognitive disparities measured in older Black Americans compared to White Americans.

A team of researchers from the Yale School of Public Health examined a sample of Black and White participants over the age of 50 from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study. The survey contained information on the participants cognitive function and impairment, as well as their childhood experiences. The research team developed a 27-point measurement scale of cognitive function and found the average score of Black participants was significantly lower than White participants, at 13.6 points and 15.8 points, respectively. Additionally, the researchers discovered Black participants were over twice as likely to show symptoms of cognitive impairment.

The study found Black participants were significantly more likely to report negative childhood experiences such as family financial difficulties, trauma, and less enriching educational opportunities. The majority of Black participants reported attending segregated K-12 schools.

When examining the connection between these negative early-life experiences and cognitive function in older adulthood, attending a segregated school was found to have the largest effect on cognitive impairment compared to other childhood difficulties. This was especially shown among Black participants who attended a segregated elementary school.

The authors of the study believe their findings highlight a previously unidentified risk factor for disparities in dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, and other cognitive impairment challenges among Black Americans. They suggest health professionals and policymakers focus on improving early-childhood experiences for Black children, as that may be a more efficient method of minimizing health disparities. Additionally, the authors suggest primary care clinicians connect with their Black patients regarding their childhood experiences to better understand their risk for cognitive decline.

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