As deaths from heart disease and many types of cancers have dipped, living longer is putting more people at risk for Alzheimer's disease, the brain-wasting condition that a new report shows African-Americans and Hispanics are particularly vulnerable to as they grow older.
According to the Alzheimer's Association's report released today, "2010 Alzheimer's Disease Facts and Figures," 5.3 million people are living with Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia. African Americans are almost twice as likely as whites to have Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, and Hispanics are about one and a half times more likely to be stricken with it.
Hosted by Richard Steel, Facing Alzheimer's takes an informative, compassionate and in-depth look at the issues African-American caregivers face when confronting Alzheimer's.
Maria Carrillo, the Alzheimer's Association's senior director of medical and scientific relations, says higher rates of diabetes and heart disease in the African-American and Hispanic communities probably are linked to increased rates of dementia.
Carrillo, who has Hispanic roots and whose mother-in-law has Alzheimer's, says a lack of awareness of community health resources deters disease education and prevention measures, and cultural attitudes, including respect for the elderly (not questioning the authority of a senior even if he or she exhibits symptoms of dementia) can be roadblocks to early diagnosis and treatment.
Many people do not realize they have the power early on to reduce their risk of developing dementia, says Alzheimer's expert Steven DeKosky, senior vice president and dean of the University of Virginia School of Medicine.
"Exercise, watch your lipids (cholesterol) and blood pressure and abdominal girth," DeKosky says. "Exercise your brain, stay active, challenge yourself with puzzles like sudoku. Don't do just passive sorts of things."
Many are also not aware that medications can help with the symptoms, says Carrillo, who points out that for every person with Alzheimer's, one or more caretakers are juggling that patient's increasing health needs as the disease progresses. (Alzheimer's patients live an average of four to six years and as many as 20.) She worries about caretakers' health and stress levels, too.
DeKosky notes that medical centers struggle to find early-Alzheimer's patients to participate in drug studies, and that research has slowed.
According to the new report, which examined data from 2000 to 2006, deaths from Alzheimer's increased by 46% compared with heart disease deaths, which dropped by 11%; breast cancer deaths, which decreased by nearly 3%; and prostate cancer deaths, which dropped by nearly 9%.
DeKosky says that even though families may suspect a loved one has dementia, they may be less likely to visit the doctor because they know there's no cure. "We will be greatly helped when there are more powerful medications, when we can make life better for abuela," he says.
Early Alzheimer's can manifest itself in different ways, says Darby Morhardt of Northwestern University's Alzheimer's Disease Center in Chicago. Though everyone occasionally blanks, some lapses are more cause for concern.