Understanding the connection between trauma and dementia among Vietnamese in the U.S. is a personal mission for UC Davis Health researcher Oanh Meyer.

Her mother, Anh Le, arrived in the United States in 1975 as a Vietnam War refugee just one day before the fall of Saigon. She settled in America and raised a family, but the trauma of living in war-torn Vietnam throughout the conflict took a toll on her.

Now 85 and suffering from dementia and possibly Alzheimer’s disease, Anh Le is haunted by imagined threats from military soldiers, made worse by a long held distrust of authority. Her fears stem from past experiences of living in a war-torn Vietnam, terrified that family members and loved ones would be taken and never come back.

An estimated 2 million civilians were killed on both sides during the conflict, and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters died. U.S. armed forces deaths were approximately 58,000.

“In the beginning of the disease, my mother constantly thought that the government and military were nearby and were watching her,” said Meyer.

With a new first-of-its-kind study, Meyer hopes to better understand how the legacy of surviving the Vietnam War, and the status of being a refugee in the U.S., impacts brain health.

$7.2 million effort

UC Davis has been recruiting older Vietnamese Americans in the Sacramento and Santa Clara regions for a study of aging and memory. The five-year research project, Vietnamese Insights Into Aging Program (VIP), is funded with a $7.2 million grant from the National Institute on Aging, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Vietnamese Americans are the largest Southeast Asian group in the U.S. About 158,000 live in the Sacramento and Santa Clara regions, many of whom survived the trauma of the Vietnam War first-hand.

Oanh Meyer during an outreach event
Oanh Meyer and colleagues distribute flyers announcing the new study at a food distribution event at Asian Resources Inc., a nonprofit organization that serves limited-English and low-income communities in Sacramento.

“We know that many Vietnamese Americans have experienced early life adversity and trauma as well as depression, all of which may increase their risk for cognitive impairment and the development of dementia,” said Meyer, lead investigator for the grant.

Meyer (Ph.D., M.A.S.) is an associate professor of neurology at UC Davis Health’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. She’s also the co-director of the Integrating Special Populations into Research program in the university’s Clinical and Translational Science Center. Van Ta Park, a professor in the School of Nursing at UCSF, is the co-investigator for the study with Meyer.

Around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. sponsored the evacuation of an estimated 125,000 refugees. In the following years, there was a mass exodus as the humanitarian crisis increased. Currently, more than 2 million people of Vietnamese descent live in the U.S.

Fastest-growing U.S. minority group

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial minority group in the U.S., but there’s a lack of research on their cognitive aging and risks for Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias. For the VIP study, Meyer hopes to recruit about 570 Vietnamese Americans 65 and older from the greater Northern California area.

Study participants in the Sacramento region will come into the clinic at UC Davis Health or to Asian Resources Inc., Meyer’s community partner organization, once a year for at least three years. In the Santa Clara region, participants will receive their assessment at ICAN, Park’s community partner organization.

“There are conflicts around the globe resulting in continued arrivals of refugees in the U.S. By understanding more about this one population, we may be able to help other generations of refugees as well,” Meyer said.

Additional UC Davis investigators for the study include Sarah Farias, Ph.D., in the Department of Neurology, Danielle Jenine Harvey, Ph.D., and Rachel Whitmer, Ph.D., in the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Ladson Hinton, M.D., in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.