Alzheimer’s & The African-American Community

There is a silent killer within our community and many of us are unaware it exists.

Alzheimer’s is not a disease that is talked about in our community, and in most cases, it is rarely represented in the media as effecting African Americans. This notion however is far from the truth. The risk of Alzheimer’s amongst African Americans is much higher than Whites. African Americans are two times more likely to develop late onset Alzheimer’s disease than non-Hispanic Whites. In many cases, they are less likely to have an early diagnosis, which prevents early treatment. The condition of the patient is oftentimes considered just “old age” and the disease is left untreated.

Alzheimer’s disease is considered the 6th leading cause of death and it is estimated that 5 million Americans have the disease. It is a form of dementia which interferes with an individual’s memory, thinking and behavior. In the beginning, it slowly interrupts the individual’s daily life; getting worse as the disease progresses. Simple tasks such as getting dressed, eating and remembering the names of loved ones is impossible at the late stage of the disease. Although most individuals are diagnosed at age 65 or older, those younger than 65 can develop the disease. Individuals with a parent or sibling with Alzheimer’s are more likely to develop the disease than those with no family history.

The Effects on African Americans
The number of African Americans suffering from the disease is much higher than other racial groups. Research has shown that vascular disease is considered to be one of the reasons that Alzheimer’s is thought to be most prevalent with African Americans. The African American community has long been plagued with weight issues and diets high in salt and fat, leading to high blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Studies are now indicating that individuals with a history of high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease. Those with both risk factors are four times as likely to develop dementia.

Viv Ewing, Executive Director of the Alzheimer’s Association said “African Americans have a 25% greater risk of developing the disease.”

Alzheimer’s is not considered a normal part of aging. It is important for both those with the disease and their loved ones to know the difference between the signs of Alzheimer’s and the signs of typical age related change.

Signs and Symptoms of Alzheimer’s
The following information is provided by the Alzheimer’s Association.
• Memory loss that disrupts daily life
• Challenges in planning or solving problems
• Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure
• Confusion with time or place
• Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
• New problems with words in speaking or writing
• Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
• Decreased or poor judgment
• Withdrawal from work or social activities
• Changes in mood and personality, including apathy and depression

Typical Age Related Change
• Sometimes forgetting names or appointments, but remembering them later
• Making occasional errors when balancing the checkbook.
• Occasionally needing help with the microwave setting or to record a television show.
• Getting confused about the day of the week, but figuring it out later.
• Vision changes related to cataracts.
• Sometimes having trouble finding the right word.
• Misplacing things from time to time and retracing steps to find them.
• Making a bad decision once in a while.
• Sometimes feeling weary of work, family and social obligations.
• Developing very specific ways of doing things and becoming irritable when a routine is disrupted.

Treatment
While there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, treatments are available that may help relieve some symptoms. Research has shown that taking full advantage of available treatment, care and support options can improve quality of life. This includes staying active, exercising for 30 minutes a day, watching our weight and eating fresh fruits and vegetables. This also means monitoring and controlling blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels. Keeping the brain active by reading, doing puzzles and staying socially involved with friends or peers are all a part of this lifestyle.

“Everything that is healthy for the heart, is healthy for the brain”, says Ewing.

It is important to make sure that we don’t dismiss the early signs of the disease as typical age related change. If you are concerned that a loved one might have the disease, contact their doctor or the Alzheimer’s Association of Omaha at 402-502-4301 or www.alz.org/Nebraska to speak to someone that can help guide you through the process.

The association provides education, information and support to individuals and families afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease, and the related disorders and research for the prevention, cure, and treatment of Alzheimer’s and related disorders.

For more information, go to their website at www.alz.org/Nebraska.

by Yolanda Barney