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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Why Does Alzheimer's Disease Affect Black & Mexican Americans Differently Than White People?

A Black senior is sitting in a retirement home with friends in the background.
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The CDC reports that among people ages 65 and older, African Americans have the highest prevalence of Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias, followed by Hispanics, and non-Hispanic whites. By 2060, the researchers estimate there will be 3.2 million Hispanics and 2.2 million African Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.

The UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth will examine thousands of Mexican Americans, African Americans and non-Latino whites in a five-year study.

Research shows that Alzheimer’s disease disproportionately affects Black Americans and Mexican Americans; and the UNT Health Science Center is using the largest research award in its history to find out why.

Sid O'Bryant is helping lead the study and he spoke with KERA's Justin Martin.

Interview Highlights:

Why do Mexican Americans develop Alzheimer's 10 years earlier than white Americans?

That's what we're studying. I mean, that is a key reason for the project we've been doing for several years. And it looks like the disease is just different.

It looks like what we clinically think, you know, memory loss, maybe some language issues and people are being diagnosed with what looks like Alzheimer's or even all preclinical Alzheimer's oftentimes isn't. When we do the brain scans it's not there.

So what we think is going on is the disproportionate prevalence of things like diabetes and even, increased hypertension, different socioeconomic environments and those sorts of issues, all contribute to this, and they're all pushing younger memory loss.

That 10 years younger is a huge thing because it impacts quality of life and capacity to work and all of the things with family. And it's a horrible thing. But what we're seeing now is it looks like in those early years, what we think our thought was Alzheimer's may not be, it may be something else. And if it's something else like diabetes, we can treat that.

On how many people will be involved with the study:

We already have almost 2,000 people in the research. The goal is 1,000 Mexican American, 1,000 non Hispanic, white, and we have over 800 in each group.

We're going to keep going until we get the full 2,000 per group, and we see everybody over time. So we see them every two years.

With the new addition of the African American cohort we're adding another 1,000.

Why has Alzheimer's research traditionally been focused on white people?

I think it has to do with where the research is happening. So most of the research in Alzheimer's disease over the years has happened in these specialty clinics, these dementia specialty clinics.

The problem with that approach is the research shows that African Americans and Hispanics are less likely to go to dementia specialty clinics or any specialty clinic. They received the majority of the care from primary care offices. And so they're not even being seen in the settings where the research is happening. And so there's just very little access to the research.

Only in recent years has there been a huge push to say, wait a minute, inclusion matters. We can't just assume that the disease is the same amongst everybody because the research in other fields clearly shows that race and ethnicity impact these diseases.

On what's involved with the research:

What this new grant does is it takes those 2,000 people we already have. We're already doing the MRIs, we're already doing the cognitive testing, the blood work, all of this stuff. Now what happens at their next visit? They're going to go to PET scans. So get an Amyloid PET scan and they will get a Tau PET scan. Then 24 months later, they get everything again.

To my awareness, it's the first study ever to capture both Amyloid and Tau in addition to the MRIs among a large-scale multiethnic study.

We're very excited about that because we will absolutely be able to study and determine is the biology different? How does environment impact the biology? How does medical comorbidities impact biology?

So it's exciting and it's time. This study needs to happen.

Interview highlights were lightly edited for clarity.

Got a tip? Email Justin Martin at Jmartin@kera.org. You can follow Justin on Twitter @MisterJMart.

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