Ethnic Groups Vary in Susceptibility to Alzheimer's Disease

Caregiver, patient expert

Studies show that many diseases affect ethnic groups differently, with a larger percentage of some groups than others expected to develop these diseases over time. Recently, the first ever study to expand its research with dementia, particularly Alzheimer's, beyond the Black and Caucasian communities has published data that should make us all pay attention.

Six ethnic and racial groups within the same geographic population were studied. The groups are considered to represent the diversity of the U.S. According to the University of California San Francisco’s report, researchers found dementia incidence to be highest in Blacks and American Indian/Alaska Natives, lowest among Asian Americans, and intermediate among Latinos, Pacific Islanders and whites.

Why study the ethnic differences?

While few populations are entirely made up of one ethnic background, the populations studied came as close to that concept as scientists are likely to get. Finding out that there are variances in susceptibility to Alzheimer’s within ethnic cultures can help researchers determine if this variance is because of genetic background, lifestyle or a combination of factors.

That will take time, however it would seem to me that lifestyle would be the easiest to determine. Clusters of ethnic groups often engage in different lifestyles from food consumption to exercise.

The breakdown of the study shows that, "...Using cumulative risk estimates, researchers projected that among those who reach age 65 dementia-free, 38 percent of blacks, 35 percent of American Indians/Alaskan Natives, 32 percent of Latinos, 30 percent of whites, 28 percent of Asian Americans and 25 percent of Pacific Islanders would develop dementia in the next 25 years."

I’m U.S. born and was raised in a very white culture, though thankfully we're now seeing far more ethnic diversity. However, my roots place me in the 30 percent range. I don’t believe that being Caucasian will alone determine my risk for developing Alzheimer’s. Some of the risk could go back to toxins from my youth or even in utero. Some could be from medications that I’ve taken throughout the years. Some could be determined by family genes.

But lifestyle is important. The 2014 Alzheimer's Association International Conference in Copenhagen presents us with an example of this type of thinking. In no way was there a consensus that if we all just lived right there’d be no Alzheimer’s to worry about. The disease isn’t going away on its own.

Still, these eminent Alzheimer’s researchers and specialist determined that as many as one in three people could put off the symptoms of Alzheimer’s  disease for up to ten years with lifestyle changes. Understand that this still leaves the other two out of three unaffected. Yes that’s the majority.

Still, one in three is better than nothing. Lifestyle is something that we can change. If more information is gathered about the lifestyles of the ethnic populations such as Asians and Pacific Islanders, perhaps all of us can benefit. That fact helps remove a feeling of complete powerlessness over developing the disease.

We may still get Alzheimer's, but maybe we will put off the symptoms for a few years. Of course, there’s a two thirds chance that we won’t alter our chances at all, but since even taking a daily walk can help protect us from other diseases, why not do it? Being proactive, even in a small way, feels empowering. That may lower stress. Lower stress may help Alzheimer’s risk. It’s a continuing circle because everything in our body depends on something else. It makes sense to me to do what we can. It may not be much, however the only other choice is to give up. I vote for action.

Carol is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. She runs award winning websites at _  On Twitter, f_ollow Carol @mindingourelder and on Facebook:_ Minding Our Elders

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