Caregiver consoling a senior male patient in a nursing home during the day

New research at Case Western Reserve University aims to address racial disparities in cognitive decline

Connecting with friends is key to limiting social isolation—something researchers believe could also reduce Alzheimer’s, dementia

Last year, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released an advisory labeling loneliness, isolation and lack of connection an “epidemic” in the United States.

Within that public-health crisis, according to recent research by Case Western Reserve University social scientist Ann Nguyen, is the fact that isolation causes cognitive decline—a problem she found is even worse for Black Americans.

While Black Americans are twice as likely to suffer from Alzheimer’s or another dementia as older whites, research hasn’t yet identified why. Many of the dementia risk factors, whether health or psychosocial, are more prevalent among Black Americans, said Nguyen, an associate professor at the university’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences.

Ann Nguyen
Ann Nguyen

But her latest research—based on national data from 2,308 non-Latino, Black seniors (51 and older)—suggests Black Americans with a strong social network of friends were more likely to have healthier cognitive abilities.

“Relationships with friends are particularly important for maintaining cognitive health/preventing cognitive decline,” Nguyen said. “The way we interact with friends is different from the way we interact with family. Also relationships with friends can be more positive because we can choose our friends but we can’t choose our family. These difference contributes to cognitive health.”

She noted it’s already well-documented that Black Americans generally fare worse in measures of health, compared to their white counterparts.

“It’s not just that Black Americans are more likely to suffer from cognitive decline, but they’re also less likely to get diagnosed,” she said. “If Black Americans do get a diagnosis—for Alzheimer’s disease or dementia, for example—it’s often at much later stage, when the care is more intensive and expensive. Most Alzheimer’s medications are only for people in the early stages of the disease. So, if people are diagnosed at later stages of the disease, they don’t qualify for these medications.”

Nguyen recently shared her research findings with the Cleveland Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center (CADRC), of which she is also a member. The CADRC, an interdisciplinary research organization, brings together important research and medical organizations in Northeast Ohio to improve knowledge about the various reasons behind Alzheimer’s disease and related memory problems.

Brian Appleby, director of the National Prion Disease Pathology Surveillance Center and the Clinical Core Leader at the CADRC, said research and perspective from a social scientist—in addition to the medical community—is vital to address the issue more holistically.

“Social workers are uniquely positioned to assess and affect change at the society level that could be aimed at things like behavioral approaches to prevent these conditions,” said Appleby, who is also a professor of neurology at the university’s School of Medicine.

As part of her work at CADRC, Nguyen said she’s interested in studying “upstream” factors—preventative measures—in cognitive decline, rather than after patients develop “downstream” medical issues.

“Understanding and addressing modifiable risk factors are essential for eliminating the racial disparities in cognitive health outcomes,” she said. “Social factors are specifically modifiable, meaning that we can change them.”

For more information, contact Colin McEwen at