EAST LANSING, Mich. — A troubling new study by Michigan State University finds lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) individuals are at a greater risk of developing dementia.
“Our study speaks to the unaddressed questions about whether members the LGB community are more likely to develop cognitive impairment at older ages and, if so, what factors contribute to their poorer cognitive health,” says lead study author Ning Hsieh in a university release.
Why are LGB individuals developing dementia at higher rates than heterosexuals? While society has progressed considerably over the past few decades in terms of removing the stigma from homosexuality, researchers say many LGB people still feel overwhelming anxiety and stress. Discrimination and isolation caused by their sexuality also plays a major factor.
“We knew that stress and depression are risk factors for many chronic health problems, including cognitive impairment, in later life. LGB people experience more stressful events and have higher rates of depression compared to their heterosexual counterparts,” the assistant professor of sociology continues.
Is depression the key to triggering dementia later in life?
This is the first ever study to use a national sample to investigate cognitive health risks among older LGB people. Researchers looked specifically for cognitive differences between LGB individuals and heterosexual adults around the same age. In all, the team examined the cognitive skills of 3,500 LGB and heterosexual adults and compared them using a screening tool and survey. That survey measured each person’s cognition across six categories: short-term memory, working memory/concentration/attention, executive function, temporal orientation, language, and visuospatial skills.
On average, the results find LGB participants are more likely to develop mild cognitive impairment or early dementia in comparison to straight participants.
Interestingly, the research team also investigated a number of other factors (lifestyle, social connections, physical conditions) that may influence cognitive ability among LGB individuals. The only factor which appears to make any difference when it comes to cognitive decline is depression.
“Our findings suggest that depression may be one of the important underlying factors leading to cognitive disadvantages for LGB people,” Hsieh explains. “They may experience higher rates of depression than their heterosexual peers for many reasons, including not being accepted by parts of society, feeling ashamed of their sexual orientation or trying to hide their romantic relationships and being treated unfairly in school or at work.”
Social inclusivity can help lower dementia risk for LGB community
Factors like number of close friends or alcohol consumption also didn’t seem to make much difference for dementia risk among LGB communities, to the surprise of researchers. With all that in mind, the MSU team feels more research will help to uncover how early life stressors contribute to dementia rates among sexual minorities decades down the line.
If nothing else, Hsieh and her team hope their findings help remind everyone that just a little bit of inclusivity and kindness toward LGBT communities can go a long way toward fostering cognitive well-being.
“Social inequality makes less privileged groups, including sexual minorities, more prone to develop cognitive impairment,” Hsieh concludes. “Making the society more just and more accepting of diverse sexuality may help prevent dementia and reduce related health care burden on society.”
The study is published in The Gerontologist.