Black History Month and ongoing disparities in Alzheimer’s care

Ending stigma and securing better access to diagnoses are top priorities

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by Ray Burow |

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Happy Black History Month!

President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976 to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African Americans in the United States, though the observance had been developing for decades and in fact continues to develop. The month is a perfect time to discuss how Alzheimer’s disease affects the African American community.

Alzheimer’s is the most common form of dementia. More than 6 million people in the United States age 65 and older have been diagnosed with the disease. Medical science is making great strides in fighting Alzheimer’s, but awareness remains an obstacle. Millions of Americans and people around the globe are undiagnosed, according to Alzheimer’s Disease International’s 2021 World Alzheimer’s Report.

Stigma helps to fuel a lack of awareness in every community, but a disparity exists between Black and white Americans diagnosed with the disease.

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African Americans are two to three times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease than white individuals. Yet a report by the National Institute on Aging indicates that African American participants in Alzheimer’s research studies were 35% less likely to receive a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias than white participants.

There are multiple reasons for this disparity. African Americans who present with symptoms related to dementia go undiagnosed because physicians too often don’t consider the symptoms to be severe. However, a white patient presenting with the same symptoms might receive a diagnosis. 

Certain social attitudes and belief systems, as well as an uncertainty about how to define dementia, may also hinder African Americans from seeking a diagnosis. Many Black people, for instance, assume that memory lapses are just a normal part of aging. Fifty-five percent of African Americans believe that significant loss of cognitive abilities or memory is simply expected with age, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

African Americans also tend to distrust the medical community in general and shy away from clinical trials. Nearly 70% of African Americans fear being used as guinea pigs, the association noted. And more than 60% believe research is biased against people of color. 

Addressing the concerns

The Alzheimer’s Association notes that it’s committed to addressing these concerns, and as a former caregiver and an African American, I believe we must trust them to do just that. People of color must hold the medical science community accountable. Don’t give up on your cognitive health or the need for a correct diagnosis without a fight.

While there are discriminatory healthcare providers, there are also many, many doctors, neurologists, and clinicians who aren’t. Visit one after another until you’re satisfied that they take the Hippocratic oath seriously. There are physicians committed to doing no harm. In the meantime, don’t harm yourself by failing to do what you can, including the following:

  • Know and accept that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia are not a natural part of aging.
  • If you’re diagnosed with dementia, enroll in a clinical trial sanctioned by the Alzheimer’s Association or connected to a reputable school of medicine.
  • Educate your friends and family regarding Alzheimer’s disease. We don’t have control over other people’s biases, but we can control our own. Seek help.

My mother was born and raised before integration. There were separate hospitals for Black and white patients then, but thanks to the civil rights movement and to Americans who sought and diligently worked for change, that’s no longer true. While disparities still exist, things are better than they were. Separate hospitals are now a thing of the past.

I’m thankful that help was available to my mother and our family post-segregation. She received excellent treatment in a clinical trial that I’m convinced assisted in keeping the disease at bay, or at least dampened for a time. She had many more good days than bad ones because she was diagnosed early and followed a regimen outlined by her memory clinic.

Ending disparities

Healthcare is better today than in the dark hours of our nation’s history, but disparities still exist. Let’s squelch them.

When my mother was pregnant with her first child, her white doctor determined that the pregnancy was problematic. My brother was born premature, and the doctor, a good man, arranged for my mother to give birth at a different hospital than the one designated for “colored” people.

There was a program in the second hospital for premature babies. The white doctor made a decision and stood behind it at a time when the tide flowed in the opposite direction. Even back then, some doctors lived by their oath. Don’t allow the statistics on healthcare bias to stop you from getting the help you need. Find a doctor willing to swim against the tide if that’s what it takes.

Note: Alzheimer’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Alzheimer’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Alzheimer’s disease.


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