Although Black Americans are about twice as likely to develop late-onset Alzheimer’s disease as White Americans, they’re also less likely to be diagnosed with it. A variety of factors play a role in this disturbing trend, including stress and racial inequities. Here we’ll examine the impact of both, and ways to diagnose Alzheimer’s earlier.
The role of stress
While many theories emphasize genetic factors as the root cause of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, a growing body of research indicates stress is a major contributor. A recent post from The Family Institute at Northwestern University’s online Master of Arts in Counseling Program highlights research from the Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association that found that a single major stressful event in early life was equal to four years of cognitive aging.
In this light, it’s no coincidence there is an increased prevalence of dementia in Black Americans, because they experience over 60 percent more incidents of major stressors than non-Hispanic whites over their lifetimes. Studies support the fact that early stress and neighborhood conditions contribute to dementia risk later in life and that stress is a major contributor to health disparities.
Other contributing factors
In addition to the role of stress in disease development, other factors influence the medical community’s ability to diagnose dementia in Black Americans. These other contributing factors may include cultural beliefs on aging, inequalities in health care, as well as varying life course influences, like exposure to stressful environment.
With a well-documented history of abuses against Black Americans in medical research, distrust toward the medical establishment is high. Therefore, many individuals are reluctant to participate in research or seek medical help when symptoms appear. Since early intervention is most effective, individuals who seek care at later stages might not receive the same benefits from treatment.
Steps toward progress
While racial inequities appear to have a major influence on the occurrence of dementia within the Black American community, the good news is there is progress. Reducing stress and addressing other contributing factors are steps that can be taken to lower the potential impact of dementia. Licensed counselors can be a big help before and after a diagnosis by providing educational tools, as well as support for crisis intervention and complex decision-making related to living arrangements, finances, and quality care. According Dr. Tonya Davis, a licensed clinical professional counselor and core faculty member in the Counseling@Northwestern program, to help Black Americans experiencing dementia, she encourages counselors to be:
- steadfast and diligent regarding multicultural awareness
- to identify, understand, and advocate for individuals experiencing various aspects of discrimination, stereotypes, and biases
- to help stamp out systemic oppression in existing health care systems and communities.
An additional step is to become active in efforts to help change the future of dementia care for this population. One woman who is doing exactly that is JoAnn Pritchett, a former higher education professional who is participating as part of a control group in research conducted by the Alzheimer’s Association. “What you’re trying to do is get people beyond not trusting,” she said. “Knowing how Alzheimer’s effects the [Black] community, I, as a party of one, had to show that I was willing to do this.”
Colleen O’Day is a Digital PR Manager and supports community outreach for 2U Inc.’s social work and mental health programs. Find her on Twitter @ColleenMODay.