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Filling in the Alzheimer's 'Race Gap'

Black and Hispanics often labor under misconceptions about the disease, researchers discover

SUNDAY, April 20, 2008 (HealthDay News) -- A diagnosis of Alzheimer's disease is wrenching, especially for family members of the patient.

But certain races and ethnic groups, including Hispanics and blacks, are more likely to labor under misconceptions about the disease, often wrongly viewing it as a normal part of aging, researchers are learning.

And that often leads to delays in seeking care, when early treatment might make a difference in the progression of the mind-wasting disorder.

In a recent survey conducted for the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, researchers found that Hispanic and black caregivers were more likely to believe that the symptoms of Alzheimer's weren't a disease but just part of growing old. Thirty-seven percent of black caregivers and 33 percent of Hispanic ones thought that was the case, compared to 23 percent of caregivers from other racial or ethnic groups.

Black and Hispanic caregivers were also more likely to say they did not know much about the disease.

The results of the survey highlight the need for more education about the disease, so all Americans can be given the chance to get appropriate treatment, experts said.

Eric Hall, founding chief executive officer of the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, called the survey results "distressing," adding, "Lack of an early diagnosis leaves families at a point of chaos and crisis, wondering, 'How do I care for my loved one?' "

"In the absence of a cure, care becomes a critical issue to sustain the highest quality of life for the longest time," Hall said.

The impact of Alzheimer's affects different groups of people differently in many ways, explained Angela Geiger, vice president of constituent relations for the Alzheimer's Association. For instance, she said, the disease is more prevalent among blacks than whites, and Latinos are more likely to exhibit symptoms earlier.

Given these differences, organizations such as the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and the Alzheimer's Association have created programs and other resources to reach out to different populations. For instance, publications on warning signs and other information about the disease are available in Spanish and in English, Geiger said.

"We've created a series of culturally appropriate publications tailored to African-Americans and Latinos," she said.

Alzheimer's disease affects more than 5 million Americans, according to the Alzheimer's Foundation of America, and that number is expected to rise to 8 million by 2030 as the population ages. It's currently the seventh leading cause of death in the United States.

So, what can people do to recognize the disease earlier and get help for a loved one? Educating yourself about the symptoms is one way. Both the Alzheimer's Foundation of America and the Alzheimer's Association offer information about the disorder on their Web sites. That information includes specifics on the differences between normal aging -- for instance, forgetting a word now and then -- and symptoms of Alzheimer's -- forgetting the name for common objects and calling a toothbrush "the thing for my mouth," for example.

"I think, overall, that the nation at large has a very poor understanding of what dementia is," Hall said.

If you suspect a loved one is in the early stages of Alzheimer's, Geiger suggests that you reach out for assistance and guidance. Ask your loved one's health-care provider for an evaluation, for starters.

"Work with your health-care provider to get that diagnosis as early as possible, because there are things you can do," she said, adding that behavioral interventions and medicines are two options.

More information

To learn more about Alzheimer's disease, visit the Alzheimer's Foundation of America.

SOURCES: Eric Hall, founding chief executive officer, Alzheimer's Foundation of America, New York City; Angela Geiger, vice president for constituent relations, Alzheimer's Association, Chicago; March 14, 2007, ICAN: Investigating Caregivers' Attitudes and Needs
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