New research shows Blacks cope better than others with early childhood adversity

News Analysis

By Michelle Lawrence

Contributing Writer


From ancient philosophers and mystics to modern skeptics and intellectuals alike, the topic of human suffering has spanned the ages and continues to be the source of great contemplation and debate.

Why does human suffering exist?

Of course I do not pretend to know the answer, but what I do know is that research shows that African American people tend to have a coping mechanism that protects them against the effects of early childhood suffering and defends them against cognitive deterioration in adulthood. According to Lisa L. Barnes, Ph.D., of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, and her colleagues, the biological basis of the protective effect of adversity in older African Americans is unknown.

Last December, Rush University Medical Center researchers found that older African Americans who experienced adversity and suffering in their younger years lost their cognitive powers at a slower rate than White Americans who experienced cryingboywebsimilar childhood circumstances.

A total of 61.4 percent of the participants in the study were African American, 37.7 percent were White, and the remainder were Hispanic or of unknown ethnicity. Their cognitive functioning and power were evaluated on tests of memory, immediate and delayed recall, perceptual speed, and the Mini-Mental State Examination.

At baseline, the mean global score for cognitive functioning among older African Americans was higher than expected, although African Americans in the study were younger and had less education than the White Americans. Also, more African Americans reported having experienced some type of childhood adversity such as being more likely to have “sometimes, often, or always” had inadequate food (5.8 percent versus 2.6 percent).

Barnes and colleagues analyzed data from a population-based study of aging that included more than 6,100 older residents of Chicago, and the most notable differences in adversity for African Americans were in the percentages who had not been played with more often than once a year (28.4 percent versus 15.3 percent) and being very poor (28.7 percent versus 11.4 percent).

During 16 years of follow-up, cognitive scores among White Americans decreased each year, but the decrease was lower among African Americans who reported similar experiences of going without food and being thinner than average during childhood, according to the research reported in the Dec. 11, 2012 issue of Neurology.

Three components of early-life adversity within the study included the home cognitive environment, assessed according to how often the child was played with or read to; the family financial situation, including ratings of being “very poor” and inadequacy of food; and health adversity, which included self-rated childhood health and body size at age 12.

Interestingly, regional differences were detected in a secondary analysis, and researchers found that cognitive decline among African Americans born in the northern United States who had experienced hunger and adversity in childhood lost cognitive power at a faster rate than those born in the South.

While I still do not have the answer on why suffering exists, clearly, as the research suggests, African Americans are better able to cope with it while keeping their cognitive powers intact. While the scientific research is still out on “why,” perhaps this would be a good time for the African American community to undertake its own research to locate the answer — because whatever “that is” as my grandmomma would say, “Baybee, we got it.”


Michelle Lawrence, MA, MPH, specializes in cooking African-based dishes and relationship-enhancing dining experiences for families and couples. She can be reached at 612-251-9516.