South Vietnamese refugees arrive on a U.S. Navy vessel during Operation Frequent Wind.

Understanding the cognitive legacy of the Vietnam War

Study will follow older Vietnamese Americans to see what role adversity and trauma may play in Alzheimer’s disease and dementias


In a first-of-its-kind study, UC Davis is 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.

“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 Oanh Meyer, lead investigator for the grant.

Meyer is an associate professor of neurology at the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. She’s also the co-director of the Integrating Special Populations into Research program in the Clinical and Translational Science Center.

Van Ta Park, a professor in the School of Nursing at UC San Francisco, is the co-investigator for the study with Meyer.

The war between North Vietnam and South Vietnam began in 1954. U.S. involvement increased in the 1960s and 1970s until the fall of Saigon in 1975. The U.S. sponsored the evacuation of an estimated 125,000 refugees at the time. 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.

Flyers announcing the new study are handed out at a food distribution event at Asian Resources Inc., Oct. 29, 2021.

Connection is personal

Understanding the connection between trauma and dementia among Vietnamese in the U.S. is a personal mission for 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, and some 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters died during the war. The number of U.S. armed forces who served and died in the Vietnam War is 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.

Oanh Meyer
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.Oanh Meyer

With the new 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.

Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial minority group in the United States, but there is 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 in the Department of Neurology, Danielle Jenine Harvey and Rachel Whitmer in the Department of Public Health Sciences, and Ladson Hinton in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.

Link here to learn more information about the VIP Program.

The UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center
The UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center is one of only 33 research centers designated by the National Institute on Aging. With locations in Sacramento and Walnut Creek, the center is focused on translating research findings into better tools to diagnose dementia and treatment for patients while focusing on the long-term goal of finding a way to prevent or cure Alzheimer's disease. Also funded by the state of California, the center allows researchers to study the effects of the disease on a uniquely diverse population. For more information, visit