Guest Commentary

KU needs you to help Latinos — and everyone else — fight Alzheimer’s disease

Latinos Against Alzheimer’s

Over the course of the last movie awards season, “Coco,” the latest animated film from Disney’s Pixar, won not only the Oscar for best animated feature film, but also the best original song Oscar, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and an Annie Award. The film’s co-directors noted that having the movie portray Mexican cultural traditions was a major focus for them during the film’s development.

But the film artfully incorporated another complex theme rarely found in major motion pictures: living with and caring for someone with dementia. Through their masterful direction, the film creators took a difficult but important topic — dementia’s impact on Latino families — and transformed it into a piece of art that resonates with broad audiences.

Whether Pixar knew it or not, “Coco’s” portrayal of dementia comes at a critical time for the Latino community and the nation. According to the USC Roybal Institute on Aging and Us Against Alzheimer’s, cases of dementia among Latinos are projected to grow to 3.5 million by 2060 and cost the economy a cumulative $2.3 trillion. The growth of Alzheimer’s — the most common form of dementia — among all Americans is projected to reach nearly 14 million during roughly the same period.

Alzheimer’s — a progressive brain disease characterized by memory deterioration — is a growing health challenge for families in Kansas City, 10 percent of whom identify as Latino according to the U.S. Census. Medicare data from CMS show that that 6 percent of Latino Medicare beneficiaries in Jackson County, 7 percent in Clay County, and 6 percent in Johnson County have Alzheimer’s disease. Furthermore, experts say that due to disparities in Alzheimer’s diagnosis rates for Latinos, Alzheimer’s rates among Latinos are likely higher.

The impact of Alzheimer’s disease is not limited to patients but extends to caregivers. Of the 8 million family caregivers within the Latino community, nearly 2 million care for a family member with Alzheimer’s. And these care partners are more likely to develop depression and anxiety as a result of the financial and psychological hardship of caregiving.

“Coco’s” depiction of dementia is critical for raising public awareness of dementia among all families but it offers a unique glimpse into an overlooked health issue impacting millions of Latino families. While Latinos are one-and-a-half times more likely to develop Alzheimer’s than non-Latino whites, they are disproportionately underrepresented in Alzheimer’s research. Indeed, Latinos make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but represent less than 8 percent of the participants in National Institutes of Health clinical trials. Public education and outreach to this community are critical to speeding the recruitment of volunteers into research and advancing our scientific understanding of diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Fortunately, there are efforts underway to transform community engagement in Alzheimer’s research. Right here in Kansas City, the Latinos Against Alzheimer’s Network and collaborates with local groups, including the Mattie Rhodes Center and the Global Alzheimer’s Platform Foundation. Through the latter partnership, Latinos Against Alzheimer's is working to forge relationships among community partners like the Guadalupe Centers, El Centro, Don Bosco Center and Kansas University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Center, one of the nation’s leading Alzheimer’s institutions. The collaboration has brought together local community-based organizations for lunch and learns, tours of research labs and dementia training for health staff. This kind of targeted coordination and public education aimed at increasing Latino participation in Alzheimer’s research is critical for promoting a brain healthy lifestyle in the Kansas City community.

People living with Alzheimer’s disease are not the only ones needed for clinical trials. Scientists at KU also need data from healthy older adults to advance our understanding of the brain. You can make a difference in the health of your community by considering research. Visit kualzheimer.org to learn more about opportunities in Kansas City.

Jaime Perales is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Alzheimer’s Disease Center. He co-authored this with Jason Resendez, executive director of Latinos Against Alzheimer’s — a network of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s.

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