Alzheimer's more common in African-Americans
African-Americans are twice as likely and Latinos are 1.5 times as likely to get Alzheimer's as white people, but are much less likely to be diagnosed.
Roberta Randolph, of Oakland, Calif., left, laughs with her son-in-law Nathaniel Mason in the living room of his home. Randolph was diagnosed about eight years ago with Alzheimer's disease. African Americans are twice as likely as whites to get the disease, but are much less likely to be diagnosed. (D. ROSS CAMERON, McClatchy-Tribune / April 14, 2010)
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.