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Disparities in dementia: Why African Americans face higher rates of Alzheimer’s disease

Posted at 6:10 PM, Dec 18, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-18 19:28:41-05

MILWAUKEE — When it comes to disparities in health, African Americans are frequently at the bottom of all lists. Whether it’s heart disease, diabetes, stroke or any other number of issues, systemic issues have led to African Americans health being among the worst.

Dementia can be added to that list. African Americans are twice as likely to have dementia than their white counterparts. Latinos are 1.5 times more likely to have dementia as white people.

It’s only expected to get worse. The nonprofit, Us Against Alzheimer’s, says by 2030, Latinos and African Americans will make up about 40 percent of the families impacted by Alzheimer’s.

“Why are African Americans so overburdened by disease disparities?” Gina Green-Harris, Director of the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute Regional Milwaukee Office said. “These are risk factors that go with social determinants of health and go to morbidity.”

Green-Harris was joined Friday with other WAI researchers to discuss the disparities in dementia facing African Americans. While they focus on the reasons behind why people of color are more heavily impacted by dementia, they also are fighting back against the perception that it doesn’t affect this group of people.

“I think that’s another thing that’s looked at in the community that, that’s an older white person’s disease,” Dr. Bashir Easter, Assistant Director of UW All of Us Milwaukee said. “It’s seen as a white person disease, even in the research. It excludes the individuals, African American and Latino, who are the highest being impacted but our faces are not in the process.”

The group discussed how systemic factors play a role in African American health. African Americans face higher rates of high blood pressure, coronary diseases, diabetes among other health issues. The WAI says all of these issues can influence dementia.

"It’s not caused by one thing,” Nia Norris, Assistant Director at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute, Regional Milwaukee Office said. “But being able to treat is most important to early diagnosis.”

The systemic issues that impact health aren’t the only systemic issues that influence higher rates of dementia in communities of color.

“Research is showing socioeconomic issues, social determinants of health are equally as important as the comorbid conditions,” Norris said. “Not either-or but more of, and, and both. Really connecting them and seeing the intersectionalities of those health conditions as well as the social determinants of health.”

Furthermore, there is a general mistrust of the healthcare system by the African American community. Plus, increasing concern over the cost of healthcare.

A study by the Rockefeller Foundation shows 20 percent of African Americans won’t go to the doctor because of the cost.

This leads to African Americans with dementia symptoms being less likely to be diagnosed.

"Access is really critical to this,” Green-Harris said. “When we finally get there, we have a poor experience with our provider. That turns us off and shakes us off of our foundation to keep move forward, until things become so extreme, we don’t have an option.”

In order to have the best outcome, these experts say early detection is key. That can be made more difficult by the fact that symptoms may not become fully present for up to 20 years.

The WAI says, detecting the difference between normal mental progression and something more serious is key.

“You should be recognizing the different changes in your memory,” Norris said. “If you’re having difficulty completing familiar tasks like planning and cooking a meal, paying bills, household tasks, confusion with time, places or people, new problems with words or speaking and writing or misplacing things.”

The WAI encourages people to start taking care of themselves now with a better diet and exercise. They say, it can go a long way towards taking care of your brain long term.

For more resources on how to deal with a dementia diagnosis, you can visit the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute website.

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