Bringing Alzheimer’s Out of the Shadows

This article originally appeared in Aging Today, the bimonthly newspaper of the American Society on Aging.

Pixar’s “Coco” helped to bring discussions around Alzheimer’s into homes around the world. (Pixar movie poster, courtesy National Parks Service)

Stigma around Alzheimer’s disease, the sixth-leading cause of death among Americans, is slowly eroding as the disease becomes more and more visible in our communities and in popular culture. Films such as “Still Alice” and Pixar’s “Coco” are helping the general public to learn about and have conversations about dementia.

Open discussions of their personal diagnoses from high-profile figures like former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, musician Glen Campbell and restaurateur B. Smith are putting a public face on the progressive brain disease. While awareness is increasing, there are still aspects of Alzheimer’s and its impacts on society that are largely overlooked by public health professionals, policymakers, and the research community. Listed below are a few trends that deserve more attention as we look to bust stigma and bring Alzheimer’s out of the shadows.

Brain Health and Risk Reduction

While traditionally thought of as a disease of old age, there is an emerging consensus that indications of Alzheimer’s begin as many as 20 years before symptoms appear. This presents an opportunity to intervene early to reduce one’s risk of Alzheimer’s by making brain-healthy choices. Population studies suggest that people can reduce their risk of cognitive decline by making key lifestyle changes, including participating in regular physical activity, staying socially engaged and maintaining good heart health. This shift toward preventive health practices to retain brain health underscores the importance of increasing the health system’s capacity to detect and diagnose cognitive decline as early as possible, enabling individuals to make smarter lifestyle choices, plan care and consider enrolling in clinical research.

Alzheimer’s Disparities

Members of the Latino and African American populations who are ages 65 and older will grow to 202 percent and 114 percent, respectively, by 2030, compared to a 59 percent growth rate for non-Latino white Americans. This demographic trend foreshadows a potential dramatic growth of Alzheimer’s in communities of color. By 2030, nearly half of all Americans living with Alzheimer’s will be Latino or African American.

Advanced age and higher rates of comorbid conditions like diabetes and heart disease contribute to African Americans being two to three times more likely, and Latinos being one and one-half times more likely, to develop Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, as compared to non-Hispanic whites.

One in six of the 10 million Millennial caregivers in the U.S. are caring for someone with dementia.

Millennials and Alzheimer’s

According to a report from UsAgainstAlzheimer’s and the USC Roybal Institute on Aging, one in six (15 percent) of the 10 million Millennial family caregivers in the United States is caring for someone living with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia. Nearly 80 percent of Millennial dementia caregivers reported that emotional distress was a major caregiving hardship, and one in three reported that caregiving severely interfered with their ability to work (e.g., causing them to cut back hours, lose job benefits or even to get fired).

While the road ahead is long and the landscape uncertain for the Alzheimer’s community, it is critical that we celebrate progress in advancement against the disease, find hope in new knowledge and double down on efforts to eradicate stigma and identify solutions to our shared challenges.

 

 

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.