beyond the video

Alzheimer's and African Americans

How Alzheimer's affects African-Americans



Video summary
This video makes two key points: African Americans are at higher risk than Caucasians for Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia and less likely to acknowledge its signs. (This is particularly ironic because in the early 1900s, Solomon Carter Fuller, M.D., a black psychiatrist, worked alongside Dr. Alois Alzheimer, after whom the disease is named.)

Now is a good time for some quick definitions:

  • Alzheimer's disease is a progressive disease (meaning that it gets worse over time) that attacks the brain. The result is a loss of skills related to memory, thinking, language, and judgment; it is the most common form of dementia.
  • Dementia is the umbrella word for a series of symptoms that can be a part of dozens of diseases. It includes some combination of a loss of intellectual ability (thinking, remembering and reasoning) severe enough to interfere with a person's daily functioning. Eventually, physical abilities are also affected.

There is currently no known cure for Alzheimer's disease, but some forms of dementia, such as dementia that results from a stroke, are at least partially preventable with lifestyle changes (healthy eating, exercise, no smoking, etc.)

The National Alzheimer's Association refers to the high prevalence of dementia among African-Americans as a "silent epidemic." Here are some of the statistics found at
http://www.alz.org/national/documents/report_africanamericanssilentepidemic.pdf:

  • Dr. Goldie Byrd, PhD, who has long been studying the genetics of Alzheimer's disease in African-Americans, is featured in this video. She notes that exactly how much more common age-specific dementia is in African-Americans than Caucasians varies from study to study, but more than ¾ of the studies show it is significantly more common.
  • Data from a large-scale long-term study indicated that people with a history of either high blood pressure or high cholesterol levels are twice as likely to get Alzheimer's disease. Those with both risk factors are four times as likely to develop dementia. Among African-Americans on Medicare, 65% have high blood pressure.
  • African-Americans also have a 60% higher risk of type 2 diabetes. This condition contributes directly to vascular disease, which can lead to vascular dementia (dementia related to strokes). African-Americans do, in fact, have a higher rate of vascular dementia than whites.
  • African-Americans tend to be diagnosed at a later stage of Alzheimer's disease and that limits the effectiveness of treatments that depend upon early intervention.

They may be diagnosed later because African-Americans so far seem to be less attuned to Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia. The video opens with Gloria Muldrow, whose husband died of Alzheimer's disease noting, "They don't see Alzheimer's as Alzheimer's. They see it as a mental problem." Later, (in the second video) she acknowledges that at first she dismissed her husband's symptoms, too. She thought he was just being "cantankerous" or going through a change related to aging.

In fact, denial is common among all caregivers; it is hard to face that a person you love has a terrible disease. Cordelia Davis described dementia as a light bulb slowly going dim, and Joseph D. Morton echoed that sentiment when he said of his wife that he saw the light going out in her eyes. He went on to note how hurtful it was to lose a good companion, and how lonesome he felt having lost her good conversation.

Christopher L. Edwards, PhD, of Duke University Medical Center noted that these older African-Americans who develop Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia were often the patriarchs and matriarchs of their communities who had provided guidance and wisdom for generations. Randy Pettiford found it hard to see his father, who had been a school principal and community leader, lose his abilities. He was not ready to become father to his father.

Eventually all of the African-Americans interviewed in this video did come to terms with their loved one's dementia. Cordelia Davis went further, noting that she knows she could get the disease, too, but doesn't focus on her hereditary risk. "If it happens, it happens." But while dementia is all too common, it is not normal. The video ends with Dr. Byrd saying that the goal is to prevent the next generation from getting Alzheimer's disease.

Applying this video to your situation

If you are an African-American, how much do you know about Alzheimer's disease and other forms of dementia? Did you know that African-Americans face a higher risk for dementia than whites? Are you aware of any medical conditions you have that put you at risk?

Do you know or care for someone with dementia? If so, what symptoms did you first notice? Did you ignore the symptoms in the beginning? When did you realize that the person needed to see a doctor?

If you are caring for someone with dementia, what do you miss most about the way things used to be?

The caregivers in this video are in a variety of situations. Some are living with their loved one at home. Others visit their loved one in a nursing home. There is no one right way to give care. Gladys Powell had planned to care for her husband at home, but says, "It got to be too much for me." Do you know your own caregiving limits?

Gloria Muldrow says that over time she learned to live with her husband's condition and love and respect him for who he was in spite of his disabilities. She remembered the good days. Are you able to do the same?

Adapted from Alzheimer's and African-Americans: Echoes from the Past, Campbell Productions. For more on the full video, www.terranova.org

For More on Full Video: www.terranova.org

Beyond the Video

Gloria Muldrow says that over time she learned to live with her husband's condition and love and respect him for who he was in spite of his disabilities.