Latinos are 50 % more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than non-Latino whites, yet they are far less likely to seek treatment or help.
The degenerative brain disease, for which there currently is no cure, takes a terrible toll on those who have the disease and those who care for them. By the year 2060, some 3.5 million Latinos are expected to be afflicted with the disease.
David Marquez, professor in the department of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago and leader of the Latino Core of the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center, says the reasons why Latinos may be more susceptible to the disease “has little to do with actually being Latino” and more to do with the lives Latinos live and the opportunities they have in the United States.
One reason for the surge in numbers is simply that there are more older Latinos in the U.S. than ever before.
“So in that sense there are more people who are available to get Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia,” said Marquez.
Lower levels of formal education may also be a factor in having a slightly increased risk of getting Alzheimer’s, says Marquez. He notes that researchers believe people can develop a so-called “cognitive reserve” when they are young which may help them down the line.
“In a way it’s the more you’re able to work your brain when you’re younger you can kind of build that reserve for when you’re older,” said Marquez. “There are many Latinos in the U.S. with lower levels of formal education and maybe more manual labor type jobs that might not be as cognitively stimulating — no less important — but just don’t involve the cognitive stimulation. And so it might be harder for Latinos to build up that reserve over time. And it’s not because they’re Latino. That’s not like a cultural (thing) from their heritage. It’s the way things are in the United States.”
Marquez said that evidence is growing that having other chronic conditions such as diabetes or depression can also elevate a person’s risk of later developing Alzheimer’s.
“So it’s not because they are Latino, but it is the reality that many Latinos in the United States have these chronic conditions or chronic diseases and it increases the risk for Alzheimer’s disease later in life,” said Marquez.
Dr. María Carolina Mora Pinzón, a preventive medicine physician and scientist at the Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute at University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that Latinos are less likely to move a relative into a residential care facility or access other forms of help.
“We have heard from people that are looking for the services, that they are not available for their family members,” said Mora Pinzón. “It’s either an access issue where they are not eligible, or the insurance does not cover these types of services.”
She notes that a scarcity of Spanish language services is also a factor, but says culture also plays a part in discouraging Latino families from seeking outside help.
“There’s a cultural aspect that we take care of our own and feel more comfortable doing that or feel shame about the idea of putting a family member in a care facility,” said Mora Pinzón.
Last month, the Food and Drug Administration approved the first new medication for Alzheimer’s since 2003. But Alzheimer’s experts quickly raised questions about the drug which goes by the brand name Aduhelm. Initially the F.D.A approved the drug for all Alzheimer’s patients, but earlier this week it changed its guidance and now recommends the drug be used for patients with only mild symptoms.
“We know how the drug works,” said Mora Pinzón. “The drug affects the amyloid plaques in the brain, and that’s one of the substances (linked to Alzheimer’s). The drug shows some benefit in a small group of people but there’s still more information needed. Certainly, the decision of the FDA has been controversial.”
Mora Pinzón says that one criticism that has been levelled at the drug maker Biogen is that the trials for the drug did not include enough people of color.
“Everybody agrees that we still need more research. We still need to do more studies, larger studies longer term to see if the benefits of the drug are sustainable over time,” said Mora Pinzón.
She thinks an actual cure for Alzheimer’s is likely years away.
“I think we will have a cure eventually,” said Mora Pinzón. “I don’t think it’s going to be any time soon ... I hope to be wrong.”
If you are interested in finding out more about Alzheimer’s and its impact on the Latino community the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America is hosting the Chicago Latino Healthy Brain Summit on July 23.