Researchers are zeroing in on promising theories
Like so many other Hispanic families, Alejandra García and her parents have witnessed the devastation of Alzheimer's. For Alejandra, 31, the disease stole precious time with her grandparents on both sides of the family.
Alejandra's paternal grandmother, Heriberta Arana Mendoza, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's in 1989 at age 66. Very little was known about the disease in Juventino Rosas, the small town in Mexico where Heriberta lived. Family members tried natural remedies and enlisted the help of a curandero
(healer/shaman) — believing someone may have cursed Heriberta — after physicians couldn't initially explain her odd behavior.
During this time, Alejandra's father, Juan Arana García, was living in the United States, so his sisters served as Heriberta's full-time caregivers. "We had never even heard of Alzheimer's before my mom was diagnosed," Juan says. "My sisters had a difficult time with my mom because she was so fearful of everyone; she didn't trust them. She would react aggressively and even punched one of my sisters, who was only trying to help her."
Approximately 13% of Hispanics 65 or older are living with Alzheimer's or another dementia. We're addressing health disparities and providing support for Hispanic community members.
Alejandra's maternal grandfather, J. Merced Quintanilla Casique, also lived in Juventino Rosas and would often see Heriberta wandering the city before helpfully guiding her back home. Heriberta died in 1997; two years later, Merced received his own Alzheimer's diagnosis at age 64.
"It was hard for us to even get a diagnosis," says Alejandra's mom, Juana García Quintanilla. "We kept hearing, ‘It's just his age,' which was frustrating because we knew that it had to be something more when he started to forget people and places."
Alejandra was 6 when Heriberta died — too young to recall much about her grandmother's experience with Alzheimer's. But witnessing the toll it took on her grandfather Merced made her "hyper aware" of the disease and its warning signs.
"My grandfather was such a lighthearted spirit, always wanted to dance, and eventually all of that was lost," says Alejandra, who lives in Austin, Texas. "I would hate to see that happen to another family member."
Alejandra's concerns are justified — and not only because she has a family history of Alzheimer's, which is considered a risk factor for the disease. Hispanic Americans are 1.5 times more likely to develop Alzheimer's or another dementia than White Americans. Researchers are still trying to understand the reasons behind this health disparity and how to address it.
Many factors at play
Most research related to increased risk of Alzheimer's among Hispanics/Latinos points to a combination of socioeconomic factors and a higher prevalence of several health conditions. Hispanic Americans are more likely than White Americans to have uncontrolled high blood pressure and diabetes, have a higher prevalence of heart disease and stroke, and also face barriers to accessing preventive services such as exercise programs, early diagnosis and medication.
"Socioeconomic factors such as education, income and occupation deeply affect the incidence of Alzheimer's disease and related dementia, and usually sustain and worsen health disparities," says Maria Mora Pinzon, M.D., M.S., a primary care research fellow and scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "Health disparities are due to social, economic and/or environmental disadvantages. For example, someone who can't complete high school because they have to work to help the family will not only drop out of school — which is a risk factor — they will have fewer opportunities for stable jobs, resulting in lower incomes, difficulty getting healthy foods, physical inactivity, and more barriers to control chronic conditions like high blood pressure."
Science leads the way
Alejandra would be grateful for answers, and soon. "I don't want to wake up one day and have my parents not know who I am," she says.
Experts believe the key to addressing the issue is continuing research around Hispanic Americans and dementia, as well as increasing the number of Hispanic people participating in clinical studies.
"There's an increased interest in recruiting more Hispanics/Latinos in research, which will help to elucidate many of our questions about the causes of Alzheimer's and other dementias and help us to find a cure," says Mora Pinzon, who presented at the Latinos & Alzheimer's Symposium in April. "But saying 'We need more Hispanics/Latinos in research' isn't enough — we need to eliminate the barriers to participation in research and make sure that the benefits of that research make their way to the community."