Black History Month sheds light on Alzheimer’s risk among African-Americans

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (February 10, 2014) – More than five million Americans are living with Alzheimer’s disease right now. The disease is incurable and fatal, and some people are at higher risk of developing it than others.

The Alzheimer’s Association wants Hoosiers to know their risks.

Indianapolis resident Tonya Greene has learned the importance of knowing that risk, twice. Greene said she hadn’t thought much about Alzheimer’s until her grandmother started acting differently.

“She got twisted around on the highway and ended up driving around for five hours or so,” said Greene.

So Greene moved back to Indiana from Hawaii to take care of her grandma. For about six months, she brushed off the strange behaviors as normal signs of aging. Finally, she reached out to the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association..

“There is help out there, that they do understand,” Greene said.

Through research and the diagnostic process, Greene and her grandma realized the forgetfulness, the trouble driving and the mood swings were symptoms Alzheimer’s.

Greene also learned her family’s risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia is high. African-Americans are more likely to develop Alzheimer’s or dementia than whites, according to the Alzheimer’s Association 2013 Facts and Figures report.

 “Almost twice as many African-Americans will have a dementia of some sort and primarily that is related to the linkage of heart-related diseases and Alzheimer’s disease,” said Amanda Janz, the information and referral coordinator at the Greater Indiana Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“And a large portion of those people that do have dementia are undiagnosed,” Janz said.

“There are diseases that do affect us, and affect different cultures, so this is a disease that a lot of black people have but we tend to take care of it in the home and we don’t reach out,” said Greene.

Green said she encourages everyone to call the 24-hour Memory Loss Helpline at 1-800-272-3900.

For many families the helpline is the first step to diagnosis, becoming a caretaker, and finding support, Janz said.

Greene’s grandmother died from Alzheimer’s in the fall of 2013, but not before Tonya was able to help her plan for her final days. Greene also learned how to stay healthy, herself.

“Staying involved, being physically active and having a good heart-healthy diet are the best things you can do for your heart and your brain,” said Janz.

She explained the link between heart disease and Alzheimer’s is based on the damaging effects of not getting enough blood to the brain or not getting enough oxygen-rich blood to the brain.

Knowing the warning sings also help Greene recognize early signs in her father. He’s now been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at the age of 77.

Greene said some of the lessons she learned coping with her grandmother will apply again as she watches her father live with the disease.

“This is somebody that I know that I love, maybe not the person I remember, but let me try to live in the moment and enjoy the person that they are right now,” she said.

The top ten warning signs of Alzheimer’s are:

1. Memory loss that disrupts daily life. 

2. Challenges in planning or solving problems. 

3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks at home, at work or at leisure. 

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 judgment. 

9. Withdrawal from work or social activities. 

10. Changes in mood and personality.