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Alzheimer’s impacts African Americans at higher rates

A new study explores how early intervention can prevent the debilitating disease.

Black History Month is widely considered a time to reflect on and honor the past, but a silent epidemic is threatening that history and its purveyors.

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According to the Alzheimer’s Association, older African Americans are twice as likely as their white counterparts to develop Alzheimer’s Disease. In fact, 21.3 percent of Black Americans over the age of 70 are living with the disease. 

There has not necessarily been a determinant cause of Alzheimer’s Disease. Dr. Crystal Glover, a professor and health equity in aging researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in Chicago, says research brings it to two factors: living longer and genetic predisposition. And for African-Americans, there’s even more cause for concern. Research cites diabetes, high cholesterol and high blood pressure as increased risk factors. 

“It’s really about going to your primary care physician at mid-life and asking ‘do I have these issues’ and ‘what do I need to do to get them under control,” Glover told theGrio.

A new study seeks to explore how much early intervention can prevent future memory loss and dementia. Funded by the National Institutes of Health and pharmaceutical leader Eisai, the AHEAD Study identifies older Americans between the ages of 55 and 80 who do not show symptoms of memory loss, and tests them to see whether investigative treatments can ultimately lower their risk.

As the AHEAD Study continues to make inroads in treatment discovery for Alzheimer’s, there remains concern for the lack of participation among African-Americans. According to study leaders, elder African Americans comprise less than 10 percent of clinical trial participants. While some hesitance is rooted in the apprehension within the Black community to participate in clinical trials as a result of medical racism, including the fact that less than half of Black Americans believe they can access culturally competent care, Glover, who is also a lead consultant for the study, says it is also rooted in how the topic itself is approached by the community.

Glover says her work in the area of health and aging is inspired by her octogenarian father, who offered her a common elder’s refrain as advice: “just keep on living.” Glover said her father told her that “if you are alive, then you are aging.” She told theGrio, “that’s when it became salient to me that brain health is core to your overall health and we must find ways to protect that for our elders, and our elders include those who are in their 30s and those who are octogenarians and beyond like my father.”

Glover also says it’s time the Black community abandon the notion that Alzheimer’s only affects the older population and suggests that younger African Americans begin to take serious care of their “heart to head highway” beginning in their 40s.

”You tend to see Alzheimer’s impact your daily activities but what people don’t realize is that those brain changes were occurring twenty to twenty-five years prior,” she warns.

As over half of African Americans believe memory loss is inevitable and don’t see Alzheimer’s as a serious disease, Glover says it’s time for intentional conversations about how Alzheimer’s impacts the Black community. “The biggest thing is to notice how the patterns of a person who has always been good with dates and certain occurrences is consistently changing or has begun to change over time.” Glover advises that loved ones recognize when walking or holding objects becomes difficult, as these are also signs of possible memory loss.

Additionally, Glover says activities like walking, knitting and participating in books clubs helps to keep older brains active and fight against Alzheimer’s. “All is not lost once you get older,” Glover said. “We have to be willing to be honest about the changes we see in our loved ones and get them the help they need.”

Candice Marie Benbow is theGrio’s daily lifestyle, education and health writer. She’s also the author of Red Lip Theology: For Church Girls Who’ve Considered Tithing to the Beauty Supply Store When Sunday Morning Isn’t Enough. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @candicebenbow.

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