Memory loss, repetitive conversations, misplacing everyday items – all are frequently attributed to aging and generally accepted as an inevitable part of life. But to the trained professional, the telling signs of dementia are apparent. Dementia is a serious loss of cognitive ability in a previously unimpaired person that extends beyond what might be expected from normal aging. It affects memory, thinking, language, judgment and behavior. Classically represented by Alzheimer’s disease, its most popular form, dementia is also commonly defined by cases of Parkinson’s disease and Huntington’s disease among others.

Symptoms of dementia habitually go undetected until the condition is past its breaking point. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that as many as 5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, with about 5 percent of men and women ages 65 to 74 battling the disorder. The CDC also estimates that about half of Americans age 85 and older have Alzheimer’s.

However, physicians can pinpoint early signs of dementia in patients as young as 30. But because middle-aged adults generally are not lining up for neuroscans, any trace of the syndrome can rest for years until a person is finally encouraged to be examined and by then, brain decay has already set in.

While the exact cause of dementia has yet to be discovered, several risk factors have been identified in the forms of diet, depression and alcohol consumption. Weakened vascular systems are also prime candidates for dementia development—which puts African Americans directly in the crossfire according to research from District-based neuropsychologist Dr. Stephanie Johnson.

“Hypertension, Type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol are all risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease,” said Johnson, who currently works as a consultant scientist at Wisconsin Alzheimer’s Institute. “We know that African Americans definitely have the highest prevalence of hypertension and many African Americans suffer from high cholesterol and Type 2 diabetes. All of those are risk factors and so is stroke. And we know that stroke disproportionately affects African Americans.”

African Americans actually have the highest prevalence rate of Alzheimer’s disease, doctors are unable to explain why, Johnson added. There are theories in place however, mainly the heightened rate of African Americans’ vascular risk factors.

Though incurable, steps can be taken to reduce the risk of dementia and its many forms. A recent study funded by pharmaceutical company Novartis and the French National Research Agency found that eliminating depression and diabetes while increasing fruit and vegetable consumption could lead to a 21 percent reduction in new cases of dementia. Researchers observed 1,433 people over the age of 65 for seven years and found those who rarely ate fruit and suffered from depression and diabetes were more likely to develop dementia.


Stephen D. Riley

Special to the AFRO