Alzheimer’s disease: black Americans are hardest hit

October 4, 2018

As the aging population continues to grow, so will the prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and worse yet, Blacks will be hit hardest. According to the Alzheimer’s Association’s 2018 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures, an estimated 5.2 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease and 1.1 million of them are Black Americans.

Alzheimer’s disease is currently ranked as the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. However, it is the fourth leading cause of death in older Blacks. Moreover, where you live can impact how likely you are to die as a result of Alzheimer’s. For example, deaths from Alzheimer’s in Mississippi is 45.8 percent higher than any other state. On the other hand, New York residents with Alzheimer’s experience the lowest death rate at 13.1 percent.

What is Alzheimer’s disease?

Alzheimer’s disease is a devastating, progressive disease that slowly destroys memory and thinking skills, causes challenging behavior problems, and eventually leads to an inability to carry out simple tasks. Most people with Alzheimer’s have late-onset type with symptoms appearing in their mid- 60s. Early-onset Alzheimer’s disease is very rare, occurring in individuals between 30 to 65 years of age.

Why are Blacks hardest hit?

Scientists don’t yet fully understand what causes Alzheimer’s disease in most people.

However, research suggests Alzheimer’s disease is caused by a combination of genetic, health, lifestyle and environmental factors. The importance of these factors in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing Alzheimer’s differs in Blacks compared to whites.

For example, vascular risk—medical conditions that impact the blood vessels, such as heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure, as well as diabetes and obesity are associated with increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Blacks experience higher rates of vascular disease, diabetes, and obesity compared to whites, putting them at greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

Problems with genes are also associated with Alzheimer’s disease. Scientists have identified rare changes (mutations) in three genes that virtually guarantee a person who inherits them will develop Alzheimer’s. But these genetic mutations account for less than 5 percent of Alzheimer’s disease. Research suggests the impact of various genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease may be different among Blacks than for whites.

Signs and Symptoms

Misplacing your car keys or forgetting where you parked your car is not a cause for panic. These are signs of normal age-related memory loss. However, if you forget what the car keys are used for that’s a serious sign of memory loss.

The first symptoms of Alzheimer’s vary from person to person. Memory problems are typically one of the early signs of cognitive—also known as mental, impairment related to Alzheimer’s disease. Also, difficulty with non-memory aspects of reasoning, such as word-finding, vision or spatial issues, and impaired reasoning or judgment, may signal the very early stages of Alzheimer’s.

As the disease progresses, people experience more significant memory loss and other cognitive difficulties.

What can you do?

Some sources claim that products such as coconut oil or dietary herbal supplements such as Protandim® can cure or delay Alzheimer’s. However, there is no scientific evidence to support these claims.

There is evidence that a healthy diet, physical activity, appropriate weight, and no smoking can lower the risk of many chronic diseases and help you stay healthy as you age. Scientists continue to explore the possibility that a healthy lifestyle might also slow down, or even prevent Alzheimer’s. They are also studying the role of social activity and intellectual stimulation in Alzheimer’s disease risk.

Currently, there is no cure for Alzheimer’s, but early and accurate detection and diagnosis are crucial.

Also, if you are 65 and older or have a family history of Alzheimer’s, ask your healthcare provider about a “checkup from the neck up” to check your brain health and cognitive function. Just as proactive screening for cancer, heart disease, or vision problems, a regular cognitive assessment can help you and your healthcare provider identify and manage changes early.

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