Adults who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual may be more vulnerable to developing dementia later in life than heterosexual adults, a new study says.
And it’s because of one factor: depression.
Many in the LGB community often deal with not being accepted by society or loved ones and being treated unfairly in school or at work, while others may feel ashamed and hide their romantic relationship because of backlash from others — feelings that over time can lead to unhappiness.
This, researchers from Michigan State University say, may speak to why, on average, older LGB adults recruited for their study were more likely to display signs of mild cognitive impairment compared to heterosexual adults.
Existing research on depression and dementia have come up with conflicting results. The biggest question that remains: Does depression cause dementia or does dementia cause depression?
The common ground is that both conditions are more common later in life, and that both cause similar changes in the brain that interfere with memory, concentration and decision making, according to experts.
“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,” study lead author Ning Hsieh, an assistant professor of sociology at MSU, said in a news release posted Wednesday.
The team highlights a need for better inclusivity for the LGB community and additional research to understand how these early life stressors can affect them.
“Social inequality makes less privileged groups, including sexual minorities, more prone to develop cognitive impairment,” Hsieh said. “Making the society more just and more accepting of diverse sexuality may help prevent dementia and reduce related health care burden on society.”
The researchers used 2015-2016 data from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project to collect questionnaire responses from about 3,500 older LGB adults and heterosexual adults. The questionnaire tested for “temporal orientation; language; visuospatial skills; executive function; attention, concentration and working memory; and short-term memory,” according to the release.
The team also analyzed participants’ physical condition, mental health status and social connections as recorded in their responses. The only factor related to cognition that drastically differed between the two groups was depression, the researchers wrote.
To the experts’ surprise, factors such as fewer social connections, drinking or smoking did not play as big a role in LGB people’s chances of developing dementia.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America says that anywhere between 30% and 60% of people in the LGBT (“T” stands for transgender) community “deal with anxiety and depression at some point in their lives” — and at a rate that is 1.5 to 2.5 times greater than that of their “straight or gender-conforming counterparts.”
The association notes that psychologists refer to the “contextual process of dealing with persistent prejudice and discrimination as minority stress.”
“Many studies have shown that it has powerful, lasting, and negative impacts on the mental health and well-being of LGBTQ people.”
The study was published Sept. 19 in the journal The Gerontologist.