African Americans are 2 to 3 Times More Likely to Develop Alzheimer’s

June 14, 2012 - Trish Vradenburg

Editor's note: This guest post is by J. Patrick Berry, a former partner of the law firm Baker Botts LLP where he currently serves as Senior Counsel. The views expressed below are those of Mr. Berry and do not reflect the views of Baker Botts LLP. Mr. Berry is a founding board member of USAgainstAlzheimer's and is also the author of Escape from Enchantment, a novella based on his own family's experience with Alzheimer's.

African Americans are 2 to 3 Times More Likely to Develop Alzheimer's. When I first heard this statistic, it literally blew me away. Not that there aren't other shocking statistics involving this disease. For example, it is the sixth leading cause of death in this country today. And as the number of Americans dying from strokes, heart disease, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and HIV all declined between 2000 and 2008, the number of Americans dying from Alzheimer's during that same time period actually increased by 66%.

Here's another shocking statistic: the costs of caring for Alzheimer's patients before they die are astronomical. It is estimated that up to $200 billion will be spent this year alone on those costs, a number that excludes any payments for the lost wages of patients' unpaid caregivers. Of this $200 billion, 70% will come from Medicare and Medicaid funds. By the year 2050, annual costs are projected to exceed $1 trillion.

I learned first-hand about the horrors caused by Alzheimer's after my father-in-law was officially diagnosed with the disease in early 1999. For the next six years, I watched as he slowly and methodically shriveled up and died.

When I visited him in his nursing home in Northern Virginia, it often surprised me when I learned of the background of a new patient who had been admitted with the same disease. A scientist who had taught linguistics at Harvard and a Navy captain who had commanded a nuclear submarine during the height of the Cold War were not spared from Alzheimer's, despite their educational degrees or their professional careers or their wealth. Even Presidents of the United States are not immune, as Ronald Reagan's poignant handwritten letter to the American public made clear. Based on this, I concluded that Alzheimer's did not discriminate among its victims.

And then I learned how brutally it discriminates against older African Americans, who are two to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer's than older white Americans.

What is surprising is how few people (regardless of their race or ethnicity) are aware of this startling statistic. African Americans, however, have a much more critical need to know about this fact and to get involved in helping find a cure for the disease because Alzheimer's presents one of the greatest health care disparities affecting them today.

Creating an African American Network Against Alzheimer's provides one method for African Americans to fight back. Even though I am not African American, I am committed to the formation of such a network because I am convinced that it could achieve three separate but related objectives.

First, it could implement a coordinated effort to educate members of the African American community about their higher risk of developing the disease. Because there are unique historical and cultural characteristics in the African American community, existing educational materials may need to be modified to accomplish this objective. Furthermore, these materials must be specifically tailored to address different segments of the African American community based on such factors as age, income, education, and geographical location.

Second, an African American Network could identify and engage African American leaders in various community, government, business and faith-based organizations to participate in and support the effort to educate African Americans about Alzheimer's. My colleague Stephanie Monroe and I are especially optimistic about the role that can be played by African American churches, some of which we have already visited. For example, churches could distribute specially created pamphlets in their weekly bulletins or provide opportunities for representatives of an African American Network to deliver a short presentation during regular Sunday services. Churches could also arrange for Network representatives to conduct more time-intensive workshops during weeknights or on Saturdays. Stephanie and I are in the process of developing a questionnaire to distribute to pastors asking for their suggestions about other ways that an African American Network could help them educate their congregations about Alzheimer's.

Third, as more members of the African American community become aware of how dramatically Alzheimer's discriminates against them, and as more African Americans begin to share their stories and experiences with Alzheimer's with one another, an African American Network could assist in the mobilization of African American communities throughout the country to request their elected officials to support greater research of the causes of Alzheimer's, including race-based differences. An African American Network could also assist in the mobilization of African Americans, especially younger African Americans, to become aware of and to participate in studies focused on finding a cure for the disease.

The resources needed to accomplish these objectives will not be insubstantial. At a time when government spending is being cut, funding for the creation and operation of an African American Network must come from private companies, charitable foundations, and individuals. It is well known that other requests are being submitted to these same sources to support other projects, which may limit the amount that can be contributed to an African American Network. But the Alzheimer's deck is so stacked against African Americans (two to three times more likely to develop the disease) that it is both a moral and economic imperative that we do everything we can to raise the necessary funds to establish and operate an African American Network Against Alzheimer's.

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