AUSTIN (KXAN) — A recent study published by a University of Texas at Austin researcher and her team found that Mexican Americans who experienced a higher level of discrimination were more likely to develop cognitive issues later in life than those who experienced less discrimination.

The scientific community has long known that Latino individuals are at an increased risk of developing cognitive impairments and Alzheimer’s disease compared to non-Hispanic white people. The reason why this phenomenon exists is less understood. This study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that experience of discrimination is one factor that contributes to this disparity.

“This finding shows that the experience of ethnic discrimination at some point during adulthood has a detrimental impact on cognitive functioning,” the study read.

Elizabeth Muñoz, one of the project’s leads and an Assistant Professor at the University of Texas at Austin, said this line of research is personal to her as someone who immigrated to the United States from Mexico. She said while doing her postdoctoral work, most of the research she studied was on non-Hispanic white populations.

“I didn’t see myself in that research. And thinking about my family – my aging family members – I didn’t know much about how their aging would look like because the literature was primarily focused on non-Hispanic white participants. We’re seeing a growth in research in this area,” Muñoz said.

In this study, Muñoz and her team tracked for 12 years over 1,000 Mexican adults between the ages of 26 and 62. The researchers tested the subject’s cognitive abilities and rated their level of discrimination at multiple time points. While the Latino population in the U.S. is diverse, they focused on people from Mexico for this study. 

They found that people experienced less racial discrimination with age, but the study participants who perceived more in early adulthood were more likely to develop cognitive issues.

“And interestingly, we found that those individuals who were born in the United States… were a part of that group that experienced higher discrimination than the group who experienced lower discrimination across the study period,” Muñoz said

Conversely, the study participants who chose to test in Spanish were less likely to experience higher levels of discrimination.

“Maybe they have tighter social networks: they live close in close-knit neighborhoods that are occupied by individuals of their same race, or ethnicity. What we call ethnic enclaves, for example. And that might be protective to them in terms of their exposure to discrimination,” Muñoz said

The researchers for this project secured more funding to continue tracking these participants. In the next phase of their project, they hope to study whether the cognitive changes they observed in this study get worse and develop into a Mild Cognitive Impairment, which is a precursor to Alzheimer’s Disease.