The Brain Killer: Dementia

Zaneta J Smith
Sep 16 · 3 min read

September is World Alzheimer’s month.

My great-grandmother had Alzheimer’s. Based on stories, she seems like she was a strong, independent woman. It’s sad to know that Alzheimer’s took her life. I can recall stories of her being lost in Los Angeles while family members frantically searched for her. I remember the stories of her traveling to her home state of Alabama and not waiting for her ride at the airport because she forgot that she had a ride.

I often wonder if there is a gene in my family line that predisposes me to the disease. Can I be doing brain exercises now that boost my chances of not getting the disease? Are there certain foods that I can avoid that will lessen my chances of this diagnosis? Sadly, I know many other people asking themselves similar questions based on caring for a family member with Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

What is Alzheimer’s and Dementia? It is so prevalent that it seems to be a normal part of aging. Is it?

Dementia is an umbrella term for mental decline “severe enough to interfere with daily life.” There are 100+ types of Dementia. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common, showing up in 50% — 60% of all Dementia cases. Dementia is not a normal part of aging. It is caused by damage to the brain cells. This damage prevents parts of the brain from communicating with each other properly thus, affecting memory, thinking, and behavior (Alzheimer’s Association).

The stats are staggering. In the world, 50 million people are reportedly living with Dementia. There are 5.8 million Americans dealing with Alzheimer’s disease. It is the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. It has been projected that by 2050, fourteen million Americans will be living with the disease. (Alzheimer’s Association).

In 2017, California reported over 16,000 deaths due to Alzheimer’s disease; an increase of 268% since year 2000. In 2016, 20% of individuals in hospice had a diagnosis of Dementia.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the growing rate of Dementia amongst African Americans is a growing public health crisis. Alzheimer’s is more prevalent in African Americans than it is in White individuals. According to a longitudinal study, Black individuals with a history of high blood pressure and high cholesterol are “twice as likely to get Alzheimer’s disease” (Alzheimer’s Association). Those individuals living with a history of both are four times as likely to suffer from Dementia. Unfortunately, is has been reported that screening tools are not culturally competent. And due to the history of medical professionals taking advantage of Black people during clinical trials, African Americans are under-represented in studies. African Americans are also reportedly diagnosed much later. Perhaps because they play it off. Or, families do not want people to know. Or, families fail to acknowledge the decline therefore, not attending pertinent doctor’s visits and reporting to the doctor about signs and symptoms. In addition, there is the myth or belief that Dementia is a normal part of aging. It is not.

What are the signs? According to the Alzheimer’s Association there are 10 common signs:

1) Memory loss that disrupts daily life

2) Challenges in planning and solving problems

3) Difficulty completing familiar tasks

4) Confusion with time or place

5) Trouble understanding visual images and spatial relationships

6) New problems with words in speaking or writing

7) Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps

8) Decreased or poor judgement

9) Withdrawal from work or social activities

10) Changes in mood and personality

Many individuals serve as caregivers to those with Alzheimer’s disease. In Los Angeles from September 20th — 22nd, The Grant Park Foundation, hosted by Board President Starlett Quarles and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas will bring awareness to the disease with a Skate Party. The theme of the event is called, Caring for the Caregiver. See more information here.

It’s clear that more education and awareness related to African Americans and the disease is needed. Greater advocacy to the medical industry and culturally competent medical professionals is imperative. Family members acknowledging signs early is important so those living with the disease can take advantage of treatment.

Spread the word about World Alzheimer’s month. Learn more about the disease here.

Zaneta J Smith

Written by

Coordinates operations of an African American civic engagement & public opinion research organization, the California Policy & Research Initiative.

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