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Alzheimer’s in Native Americans

By Jordan Dionne, BBA

photo of Jordan Dionee Hello friends! I would like to share with you some important information regarding Alzheimer's and dementia, how they impact Native American Elders, and methods that can reduce their risk and improve quality of life. As someone who cared for a grandparent who suffered from dementia, it was very difficult to watch a loved one struggle to remember family members, recall important memories, and have changes in behavior. As the life expectancy of our people continues to increase and our Elders become more at risk of these conditions, I feel it is important that we create awareness, conduct research, and find solutions to provide as much help as possible to our precious Elders.

What is Alzheimer's and dementia? Alzheimer's is a progressive disease and the most common cause of dementia — accounting for 60-80% of cases. Dementia is a general term used to describe decline in mental ability, such as memory, reasoning, or other cognitive skills. It is important to remember that dementia is not a single disease and covers a wide range of medical conditions related to abnormal brain changes that reduce cognitive abilities. These changes in brain activity not only impair daily life and independent function but also affect behavior, feelings, and relationships. Here are some early warning signs and symptoms from the Alzheimer's Association:

  • Memory loss that disrupts daily life
  • Challenges in planning or solving problems
  • Difficulty completing familiar tasks
  • Confusion with time or place
  • Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships
  • Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps
  • Decreased judgment or decision-making
  • Withdrawal from work or social activities
  • Changes in mood and personality

photo of Native American Elderly woman looking off into the distanceHow does Alzheimer's and dementia affect Native American Elders? The Alzheimer's Association states that American Indians are more likely to develop Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia than White and Asian Americans. They also estimate that as many as one in three Native American Elders will develop Alzheimer's disease in their lifetime. These numbers are projected to increase four-fold over the next three decades for Native Americans, aged 65 and older. This is a cause for concern for people who want to age in their homes and don't want to be placed in assisted living facilities. Many families prefer to care for their elderly as long as possible, but this will become increasingly difficult due to the degenerative nature of Alzheimer's and dementia. Here are some ways our tribal communities can help start addressing the problem:

  • Increase access to healthcare and health services. Our Elders are less likely to be diagnosed right when they show symptoms due to having less access to healthcare and related services.
  • Conduct research in our communities regarding Alzheimer's and dementia. There is very little research done in our communities regarding these conditions and having reliable data collected by qualified community organizations can be a great advantage.
  • Increase clinical trial participation to ensure new and effective treatments are developed for American Indians by collaborating with partners who will prioritize relationship building in tribal communities.

How can we reduce the risk of Alzheimer's and dementia? Unfortunately, there is no current cure for these medical conditions but there are multiple ways to reduce their impact. The Food and Drug Administration has approved three medications that delay decline in memory and reduce confusion but aren't curative and are unable to stop the disease from worsening over time. Another option is to get regular health screenings when you reach age 60-65 as a preventative health measure. Early detection will make it easier to reduce the effects of dementia and allow people to maintain their quality of life longer. The Alzheimer's Association International Conference suggests that adopting healthy lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, regular exercise, not smoking, and regular mental simulation, may decrease the risk of cognitive decline and dementia. While there may not currently be a cure, it is important to remember that the effects of these conditions can be reduced and quality of life can be improved if treated as soon as possible. Thank you for your time and have a blessed day.

To learn more, Native Americans and Alzheimer's Disease.