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Alzheimer's Disease and Race

Not everyone has the same prevalence for dementia, and research shows that African Americans have a significantly higher chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.

Alzheimer’s disease is an irreversible and progressive brain disorder that not only destroys memory but also eventually takes a person’s ability to perform basic tasks such as bathing and feeding themselves.

One source states that of the 5.7 million Americans diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, 20% are African Americans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that “among people age 65 and older, African Americans have the highest prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias (13.8%), followed by Hispanics (12.2%), and non-Hispanic white (10.3%), American Indian and Alaska Natives (9.1%), and Asian and Pacific Islanders (8.4%). As more people age and survive chronic diseases and enter the age when Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias increases, there will be millions of people living with these diseases.

The Alzheimer’s Association calls it a “Silent Epidemic” and found:

  1. Alzheimer’s disease is more likely to be genetic, what is called a “greater familiar risk” in African Americans.
  2. Estimates range from 14% to 100% higher prevalence for Alzheimer’s disease for African Americans than among whites.
  3. Increased research into vascular disease may be a key trigger for Alzheimer’s disease and is considered a key to better understanding why African Americans have this higher prevalence.

“Data from longitudinal studies suggest that high cholesterol and high blood pressure may be significant risk factors for Alzheimer’s,” one report from the Alzheimer’s Association explained.

Another concern is the rapidly aging population, with age being another risk factor for the disease, regardless of race. The number of African Americans age 65 and older is expected to double by 2030 to 6.9 million, according to the Alzheimer’s Association. Typically, the report notes, African Americans have higher risk for Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and chance of stroke than their white counterparts, and these conditions are all connected to increased likelihood of dementia.

One study determined that African Americans may have more lifetime stress than whites and this can lead to worse “cognitive outcomes.”

“In African Americans, the negative relationship between stressful life experiences and cognitive function was much stronger than in whites,” study author Megan Zuelsdorff, PhD, said.

While there is not yet a cure for Alzheimer’s disease or other kinds of dementia, there are some important steps that can be taken to help change these statistics and outcomes for many people.

The Alzheimer’s Association pointed out that there needs to be earlier detection of the disease in African American individuals to reduce the financial, emotional, and personal cost on families. There are treatments available to curb the symptoms of the disease, but usually just in the earliest stages. These treatments have the potential to reduce the strain on family members of those who are diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.

The non-profit, Dementia Care Warriors, is one resource to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s disease in the African American communities and to support caregivers (with both in-person and virtual support groups.) One goal is to encourage more African Americans—perhaps those just related to someone who is already living with Alzheimer’s disease—to sign up for studies.

AfricanAmericansAgainstAlzheimer’s is a group (aka UsAgainstAlzheimer’s) dedicated to raising awareness about the disease, which it calls the fourth leading cause of death for African Americans.

Learn more about Alzheimer’s disease and the connection between heart health and brain health here.

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