District residents walk for Alzheimer's. (Demetrious Kinney/The Washington Informer)
District residents walk for Alzheimer's. (Demetrious Kinney/The Washington Informer)

Thousands of participants from the greater Washington area, including dedicated and concerned children, gathered on the National Mall on Saturday, Oct. 14 to raise funds that will be used to further the care, support and research efforts of the Alzheimer’s Association during the “Walk to End Alzheimer’s.”

The annual event has seen greater attendance and participation since the first walk in 1989, increasing from nine teams to a total of over 50,000 teams. Due to the tireless efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers, it has become the world’s largest initiative to raise awareness and dollars in the nation’s fight against the debilitating mental disease — one which some say has reached epidemic proportions. Those in the District joined more than 600 other communities across the U.S. who have either sponsored or will soon hold their own local “walks.”

While the official total number of dollars raised may require a few more weeks of calculation, the importance of the funds raised cannot be emphasized enough.

And given President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to funding of nearly $6 billion for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) (18 percent of their current budget), one agency that serves as an extension of NIH, the National Institute on Aging, could find its primary efforts, conducting Alzheimer’s clinical trials and studies as the largest public funder of such research, severely hampered.

Black and Hispanic communities should be particularly alarmed due to both economic and social determinants. As the mad dash continues for discovering better treatment and perhaps one day finding a cure, older African-Americans develop Alzheimer’s at a higher rate than any other group of older Americans. In addition, according to the Alzheimer’s Association, they’re twice as likely as non-Hispanic whites to develop the disease or other forms of dementia.

Old age remains the greatest risk factor, followed by certain genes and prevalence of the disease within families. However, women, who generally live longer than men, now make up close to two-thirds of Alzheimer’s patients with symptoms normally developing at age 65 or later.

Recent research, including that conducted by the Universities of Wisconsin and California at San Francisco and Irvine, along with a Kaiser Permanente-led study, suggests that social conditions, including the stress of poverty and racism, substantially increase the risks of dementia for Blacks. In the four separate studies, researchers found that conditions that disproportionately impact Blacks compared with other groups — including poor living conditions and stressful events like the loss of a sibling, the divorce of parents or chronic unemployment — pose dire consequences for brain health later in life.

One researcher said, “We should really think about brain health as a lifelong concern.”

Tragically, the majority of the Black community as well as those institutions who have traditionally provided their greatest means of support, including the church, remain unaware of the symptoms, impact and costs related to Alzheimer’s.

The research from the four studies indicated that African-Americans see the symptoms of Alzheimer’s as signs of normal aging, something they are not. Further, both Blacks and Hispanics experienced a far greater number of misdiagnoses for Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than non-Hispanic whites.

Funding for research, therefore, remains essential, particularly in countries like the U.S. whose population continues to live longer.

“Too often, the way aging is portrayed in the media or even in conversations among families and friends is negative and out of synch with the lives many older people lead,” said AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, the author of “Disrupt Aging.”

“We need to change the conversation about age and aging in this country. This is not about being ‘polite;’ it’s a necessity. We are all aging, every day, so there is no more mainstream topic than aging,” she said.

This article was written as part of the Journalists in Aging Fellows Program organized by The Gerontological Society of America, New America Media and AARP.


Facts about Alzheimer’s Disease

  • It’s the only cause of death in the top 10 in the U.S. that cannot be prevented, cured or slowed.
  • One in three seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another form of dementia.
  • It’s the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S.
  • More than 5 million Americans are living with the disease.
  • Almost two-thirds of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease are women.
  • There are more than 15.9 million caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias in the U.S.
  • In the U.S., someone develops Alzheimer’s every 66 seconds.
  • In 2016, 15.9 million American caregivers provided an estimated 18.2 billion hours of unpaid care valued at $230.1 billion.
  • In 2017, Alzheimer’s will cost the U.S. $259 billion — a number expected to rise to over $1 trillion by 2050.

Additional information and statistics can be found at alz.org or by calling 800-272-3900.

D. Kevin McNeir – Senior Editor

Dominic Kevin McNeir is an award-winning journalist with more than 25 years of service for the Black Press (NNPA). Prior to moving East to assist his aging parents in their struggles with Alzheimer’s,...

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