Genetic Crossroads

The intersection of biotechnology, reproduction and society

Confusion Reigns on Genes, Race, and Alzheimer’s

Race is not a biological category - no matter what the headlines say

Wildly divergent headlines about a study of Alzheimer’s disease vividly illustrate the depth and breadth of the confusion that plagues our thinking about racial categories in genetic research. The New York Times billed the study (published in The Journal of the American Medical Association) this way:

Blacks Have Same Gene Changes as Whites, Alzheimer's Study Finds

The article by Gina Kolata appears to be an accurate account of the researchers’ key finding, which is that “there is no major genetic difference that could account for the slight excess risk” of Alzheimer’s among people who identify themselves as African American.

But should this be a headline-worthy surprise? Do the study and the article about it – no doubt motivated by a sincere desire to be racially inclusive – in fact wind up suggesting that race is a biological reality rather than a social and political category? Do they foster the notion that health disparities are best explained by genetic rather than social differences?

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That dynamic is unfortunately all too common, and increasingly pervasive. It’s been documented and challenged by scholars including two affiliated with the Center for Genetics and Society: UC Hastings Associate Professor and CGS Senior Fellow Osagie Obasogie (see Playing the Gene Card?) and University of Pennsylvania Professor of Law & Sociology and CGS Advisory Board member Dorothy Roberts (Fatal Invention: How Science, Politics and Big Business Re-create Race in the Twenty-first Century).

The "Blacks Have Same Gene Changes as Whites" headline in The New York Times may raise eyebrows for its suggestion that discovering genetic similarity between African Americans and white Americans is something new. But that problematic subtext pales in comparison to the treatment of the very same study by dozens of other media outlets.

If you want a sense of the challenge that faces us, take a minute to look at the headlines below, the results of a Google search on the terms “gene” and “Alzheimer's” conducted on April 9 about an hour after The New York Times article appeared.

Gene linked to higher Alzheimer's risk in blacks
USA TODAY - 3 hours ago

Gene May Double Risk of Alzheimer's in Blacks
Philly.com - 1 hour ago

Study finds gene that may raise Alzheimer's risk in blacks
Reuters - 2 hours ago

Gene Doubles Risk of Late-Onset Alzheimer's in Blacks
Businessweek - 1 hour ago

Study identifies genes linked to Alzheimer's in African Americans
Los Angeles Times - 2 hours ago

UM researchers identify new gene associated with Alzheimer's in African ...
MiamiHerald.com - 1 hour ago

New gene linked with double Alzheimer's risk for blacks
GlobalPost - 25 minutes ago

New gene associated with almost doubled Alzheimer's risk in African-Americans
Science Codex - 41 minutes ago

Study links gene to doubled Alzheimer's risk in blacks
The Grio - 2 hours ago

Lipid Metabolism Genes Linked to AD in African Americans
Medscape - 51 minutes ago

Researchers Identify New Gene Associated with Alzheimer's Disease in African ...
HealthCanal.com - 1 hour ago

Gene variant nearly doubles risk of Alzheimer's disease in African Americans
Insidermedicine - 36 minutes ago

Marcy Darnovsky, Ph.D., is Associate Executive Director at the Center for Genetics and Society.

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