Black people suffer disproportionately from dementia crisis

By Dr. Lucille Ridgill | 6/28/2020, 6 p.m.
Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia) is the 6th leading cause of death among White people, but the ...
Elderly hands Piqsels/Public Domain photo

Alzheimer’s disease (the most common type of dementia) is the 6th leading cause of death among White people, but the 4th leading cause of death for Black people like me. The Black population age 65+ is projected to more than double in size in the next 10 years, which means dementia diagnoses in our community also could more than double in number. Dementia is called a “silent epidemic” among Black people because many of us refuse to acknowledge or discuss this horrific disease. As a physician who has a close family member who was recently diagnosed with dementia, I feel the great loss of the ever-decreasing communication with my loved one and that is very painful.

Its increasing toll is also due to untreated or inadequately treated hypertension and diabetes causing vascular dementia. This occurrence is due to the progressive destruction of the vascular supply. The disease progresses slowly so that family members and physicians are shocked when it becomes apparent.

Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do to prevent Alzheimer’s at this time, but you can check your glucose and blood pressure regularly and take anti-hypertensive and diabetes medications as prescribed to delay or prevent vascular dementia. It is important to make sure family members understand their susceptibility and take action as necessary. Failure to do so can lead to delayed medical care and caregiver burnout of family members.

That’s why it is important for Black people to use “Alzheimer’s And Brain Awareness Month” as inspiration to remedy this situation.

One major reason Black people suffer disproportionately from Alzheimer’s is we are underrepresented in dementia research, in part because many of us are unwilling to donate our brains to research or participate in brain studies due to distrust of the medical system. The good news is that this problem is dissipating as more physicians and health care workers of color enter the healthcare system.

Another reason is Black people suffer disproportionately from diseases linked to a higher risk of dementia, including high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of my Medicare patients (67%) suffer from vascular and Alzheimer’s disease, 71 percent have diabetes and 75 percent have high blood pressure.

The Black community must demand that lawmakers significantly increase financial resources to reduce dementia among people of color, but we also must take personal responsibility for improving our eating habits and lifestyle to reduce our susceptibility to it. If fresh fruits and vegetables are not available where you live, you can buy them at the increasingly available farmers market or grow them in your own garden, increasing your exercise activity, while providing you with good, healthy food.

However, since dementia is incurable, we also must do advance planning for the care we would want in case we get dementia, so we don’t have to suffer needlessly by involuntarily receiving treatments we don’t want to artificially extend our life during the last, most debilitating stages of dementia. For example, when we have lost everything that matters to us: the memory of loved ones, of our life, our identity, and the ability to speak.