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Alzheimer's more common in African-Americans

OAKLAND, Calif. — The close-knit siblings began to notice little things about their mother, Roberta Randolph.

She started to repeat phrases. She would drive somewhere and forget where she was going. She began wearing the same clothes over and over again.

Many families miss or ignore such warning signs. But because daughter Dolores Durley was a certified nurse assistant who had worked with Alzheimer's patients, she took her mother in for testing and quickly got a diagnosis.

Doctors put Randolph on Aricept, one of several medications that treat the symptoms and may help slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

"You could tell the difference right away," Durley said.

Although no cure exists for Alzheimer's, experts say an early diagnosis is key in getting people the medical help and support needed to maintain their quality of life as long as possible.

Yet often, relatives refrain from having loved ones tested until the symptoms are advanced.

This is especially true in the African-American and Latino communities, studies reveal.

African-Americans are twice as likely as white people to get Alzheimer's, but are much less likely to be diagnosed.

The same disparity exists for Latinos, who are 1.5 times more likely than white people to develop the disease, yet also lag in diagnoses.

"I think we're in denial a lot of times," said Chris Mason, one of Randolph's daughters who has taken her mother into her Oakland home to help care for her. "Our parents — we look up to them and they're our leaders. The thought of them not being able to function, it's scary."

"There's a real need to increase awareness and work with health care providers on how they can do a better job with their African-American patients," said Dr. Ladson Hinton, director of the UC Davis Alzheimer's Disease Center Education Core.

"There also is a real need to work with the community to try to prevent Alzheimer's," he said.

It is not entirely clear why African-Americans and Latinos are more likely to develop Alzheimer's, although several theories exist.

"There aren't any known genetic factors that could explain the difference," Hinton notes.

Alzheimer's gradually destroys brain cells, causing memory loss and problems with thinking and behavior that begin to affect all aspects of a person's life.

The cause of Alzheimer's is unknown, but high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes and stroke are risk factors for developing the condition. These risk factors are prevalent in African-American, Latino and low-income communities.

"Things that keep the heart healthy also keep the brain healthy," Hinton said. "Staying active both socially and intellectually is a really good thing, and reducing stress in your life. Paying attention to these lifestyle things is important."

Although an early diagnosis can be extremely beneficial, many family members may be reluctant to get a relative tested and may attempt to care for their loved one on their own, experts say.

"In some cases, there's a distrust of doctors, of the system," said Anthony Randolph of Pittsburg, Calif., who is Roberta's son. "So it's hard for some people to go and get help. They know something is happening, but they don't want to find out."

Their mother's early diagnosis enabled the Randolph siblings to discuss her financial matters and care preferences with her while she was alert enough to participate in those decisions, he said.

Today, Roberta, 85, appears to be content and maintains an active life living with her daughter, Chris Mason, and her daughter's husband, Nate Mason, in their Oakland home. Roberta washes the dishes and folds clothes for the family and attends a day program at the North Oakland Senior Center twice a week. Her husband of more than 65 years died several years ago.

With her cheery attitude, Roberta is so popular at the senior center that the people who run it have encouraged her to attend more often because she is an inspiration to others, Chris Mason said.

While Mason is her mother's primary caregiver, Durley helps by traveling from her home in Atwater on Thursdays to give Chris a break. Anthony also remains closely involved in helping to care for their mother.

All three attend the African-American support group for Alzheimer's caregivers held at the North Oakland Senior Center on the first Friday of each month.

"When someone has Alzheimer's disease, it's like you grieve over them twice," said Cynthia Taylor, the African-American outreach specialist for the local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association. People first lose their loved one mentally, she said, then a second time through death.

"The person that has Alzheimer's can be mean at times, and that can have the caregiver feeling alone and depressed," she said. In the support group, caregivers share experiences, learn about the condition and realize they are not alone.

Since Roberta moved in with Mason, she has eaten better and lost weight, and no longer has symptoms of diabetes, family members say.

"There's no stress here," Roberta said, as she laughed and joked with her daughter's husband. "I have been comfortable living here because they treat me so good."

Signs of Alzheimer's

Experts point to several differences between warning signs for Alzheimer's and the typical changes that occur as people age. Here are some signs of Alzheimer's vs. typical age-related changes.

•Poor judgment and decision making vs. Making a bad decision once in awhile

•Inability to manage a budget vs. Missing a monthly payment

•Losing track of the date or season vs. Forgetting which day it is and remembering later

•Difficulty having a conversation vs. Sometimes forgetting which word to use

•Misplacing things, unable to retrace steps to find them vs. Losing things from time to time

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