African Americans & Alzheimer’s Disease
African Americans are twice as likely as non-Hispanic white Americans to have Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia. In fact, African Americans have higher risk of dementia than any other US ethnic racial group.
Despite being at increased risk of dementia, African Americans typically do not seek medical attention when symptoms first appear. This raises the risk of additional health problems because people with dementia often take medications improperly and pay less attention to self-care. It can also delay identification and treatment of conditions that could be reversed with treatment. Even if the diagnosis is Alzheimer’s disease, early detection can give medications and other therapies a chance to slow down disease progression. Early detection also provides opportunities to participate in clinical trials seeking new and better medications, and gives time to prepare for the future.
African Americans who provide care to family members with Alzheimer's disease or AD-related dementia experience greater hardship than Caucasian Americans, including more severe levels of depression, higher stress, lower levels of self-care, and poorer health. This may be related to the finding that African Americans are less likely to be aware of community resources that are available to assist people with memory loss and their care partners.
Delays in getting an accurate diagnosis can contribute to higher healthcare costs for African Americans. According to US Against Alzheimer's, African Americans make up only 13% of the U.S. population but bear 33% of the nation’s total costs of Alzheimer’s care. African Americans between the ages of 40 and 64 who are working while providing care to a loved one with dementia lose an estimated combined total of $6.1 billion in wages due to hours devoted to caregiving needs. Lost time at work can also impact future financial well-being, given that pension and social security benefits will be based on fewer total hours of employment.
WHY ARE AFRICAN AMERICANS AT GREATER RISK OF ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE?
A number of factors can potentially explain the greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease in African Americans. Health conditions such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes are known to raise risk for Alzheimer’s disease, and these health conditions are more prevalent in the African American community.
Limited educational opportunities, exposure to poverty and pollution, early life adversity, and discrimination are all believed to diminish the brain’s ability to withstand the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementia. Historically, African Americans have been disproportionately exposed to some or all of these socioeconomic forces, which may result in signs of Alzheimer’s showing up more readily than in those who do not share these risk factors.
Recent Mayo Clinic discoveries suggest that unique gene mechanisms may moderate risk of Alzheimer's in African Americans. Some genes convey different levels of risk in African Americans than in Caucasian Americans, while other genes convey risk of Alzheimer’s disease in one group but not the other. This means that both common and unique pathways to Alzheimer’s disease need to be explored so that future treatments work equally well for all.
- AfricanAmericansAgainstAlzheimer’s is the nation’s first organization dedicated to building a coordinated national response to Alzheimer’s disease among African Americans.
- USA Today article on the risk of Alzheimer's disease in African Americans.
- The African American Alzheimer's Caregiver Training and Support (ACTS 2) project provides free, telephone-based support to African-American Alzheimer’s caregivers.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in the community. We’ve got to find a way to integrate the laboratory approach with research in the community to find what works best.
- Dr. David Satcher, Former US Surgeon General.