Story at a glance
- A new study analyzed the impact of socioeconomic conditions on rates of Alzheimer’s.
- Black and Latinx patients are more likely than white patients to develop Alzheimer’s, according to existing research.
- The study found higher levels of poverty, fewer options for exercise and less education were all correlated with higher levels of Alzheimer’s.
There is no cure for Alzheimer’s, a progressive disease that destroys memory and other important mental functions, just ways to manage the condition — a depressing reality for those whose only hope is that they beat genetic odds and never have it. But a new study suggests that where you live is one controllable factor that makes a difference.
“We’ve thought about Alzheimer’s as a purely biological disease and neglected the social determinants of health,” P. Murali Doraiswamy, a leading Alzheimer’s researcher at Duke University, told the Wall Street Journal. “This is an incredibly important area that we have forgotten.”
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Those “determinants” include income, education and access to health care and nutritious food, according to the study, which analyzed Medicare data from counties with the highest and lowest Alzheimer’s prevalence by race and ethnicity. Citing research that shows Black and Latinx people are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s and related dementias than white people, the study found “deep social inequities” in counties where the Latinx and Black communities were highly impacted by Alzheimers.
Jim Wells County in Texas was one of the counties analyzed in the report and is home to three generations of Pam’s — no last name was provided — family, whose story was shared in the report. When her grandmother Kina’s dementia began worsening, their regular doctor could offer little help and the closest specialists were an hour away in Corpus Christi. Pam, a 34-year-old mother of two with a full time job, and her mother Nora didn’t want to put Kina in a nursing home – but they also had nowhere to go for support.
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“If someone has memory problems for a year or two, they typically say, ‘Well, that’s life,'” said Gladys E. Maestre, director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Resource Center for Minority Aging Research at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, in the report. “For people who are very poor, health is not their top priority—food is, and even getting a TV working becomes a higher priority than going to a doctor, because it’s a way to relieve the chronic stress of being poor. Every day you have to make the decision, ‘What do I pay?’ It’s taxing.”
Counties with higher rates of Alzheimer’s tend to have worse social determinants of health, including higher levels of poverty, fewer options for exercise and less education, according to the report, with educational attainment being the worst across the board. Still, further research is necessary to determine where exactly the link is.
“Even though the numbers are high, we believe the reality is even worse,” Maestre told the Wall Street Journal. “This is definitely place-related. We need to learn more.”
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