Since my mother died of Alzheimer’s disease in 1994, I always wondered as I attended fundraisers and events for caregivers why so many African Americans filled the rooms.
A recent study by John Hopkins University helps explain it. It shows that older African Americans are two to three times more likely to have Alzheimer’s disease compared with whites. That’s a new Black History Month concern for young African Americans and their elders whom new generations depend on for wisdom and advice.
Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death for all Americans, and the fourth leading cause of death for older African Americans age 85 and older, the study notes. The African American Network Against Alzheimer’s calls the disease “an unappreciated disparities issue,” adding that Alzheimer’s in general should “create a sense of urgency among policymakers to deal with this growing problem.” Keep in mind that African Americans are 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, but more than 20 percent of Americans with the disease are black.
There is no known cause or cure for Alzheimer’s. However, the study notes strong correlations between Alzheimer’s disease and the high incidence of hypertension, diabetes, strokes and heart disease among African Americans.
There are also links between Alzheimer’s and a lower than average educational attainment among African Americans. Environmental factors play a role. The more toxic, segregated urban areas where many blacks live drives up the likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s.
Age also plays a part. In the 1900s, the life expectancy for blacks was less than 35 years compared with nearly 50 for whites. By the end of the 20th century, it wasn’t unusual for Americans to live past age 80. The life expectancy of blacks by 2010 exceeded age 70.
The likelihood of getting Alzheimer’s or other form of dementia grows with age. Blacks bear a third of the costs of Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
The economic burden for African Americans was $71.6 billion in 2012, the report said. “More than 60 percent of the costs are borne by the families of African American women with Alzheimer’s disease, and close to half of the costs are concentrated in the southern states.”
The estimated costs of Alzheimer’s disease in 2010 nationally was $215 billion, which includes formal care and informal care from loved ones. The AARP estimated that caregiving costs for the U.S. at $450 billion a year. In comparison, the annual costs of heart disease is $309 billion; cancer, $243 billion; and diabetes, $188 billion.
The cost for Alzheimer’s and the effects on the aging black population will continue to grow. The population of African Americans age 40 and older will grow by 68 percent. But blacks with Alzheimer’s will jump by 186 percent.
The cost of Alzheimer’s for African Americans is expected to more than double by 2050. Keep in mind that Medicare and Medicaid pick up huge amounts of the costs, and that is borne by everyone.
For families, there is the emotional burden in lost memories, lost relationships and our vanishing oral black history. Such guidance has helped combat racism in America.
The study and the African American Network Against Alzheimer’s recommend that the National Institutes of Health increase its funding for a cure for Alzheimer’s to $2 billion annually within five years. “Cures are cheaper than care,” the African American Network Against Alzheimer’s notes.
The Obama administration in 2012 adopted a national strategy to combat Alzheimer’s disease with a deadline of 2025 to find ways to treat it or slow its progression. But funding has to increase to give more families like mine more hope that the fate of our parents won’t be our own with our children serving as our caregivers.