African Americans Have a Higher Risk of Alzheimer’s. Why?

3 min read  |  October 03, 2022  | 

As you or your loved ones grow older, Alzheimer’s disease is a risk. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, one in every three seniors will die of the disease or a related dementia. It affects more than five million Americans, and is the 6th leading cause of death in the United States. 

Alzheimer’s disease has several risk factors, including:

  • a family history of the disease
  • genetics
  • age
  • head injuries
  • heart health
  • brain health
  • inadequate exercise
  • tobacco and alcohol use

One factor that seems to play an outsized role in Alzheimer’s risk is an individual’s ethnic background.

For example, it appears that Latinos are 1.5 times as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as whites, while African Americans are twice as likely.

Recently, Brian W. Kunkle, M.P.H., Ph.D., an assistant professor in the John P. Hussman Institute for Human Genomics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, authored a cutting-edge study that looked into this issue. The study published in the journal Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Neurology was the largest to date to examine the genetic factors that may play a role in African Americans’ higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study researched a total of 2,784 African American patients with Alzheimer’s and 5,222 without Alzheimer’s. The study analyzed the patients’ genes and identified many factors similar to whites who develop Alzheimer’s. They also identified some unique characteristics that may explain why Black people face a higher risk of the disease. 

“Identifying genetic factors for Alzheimer’s among populations with different ancestries can reveal critical insights into the disease and create a better understanding of disease mechanisms across populations,” says Dr. Kunkle. “And this can provide critical information to advance the development of novel therapeutic measures that work for everyone.”

Why are African Americans at a greater risk?

While this study is a good start, Dr. Kunkle says more research is needed. He says that it’s likely that some combination of genetic and environmental factors is at play when it comes to this greater risk.

“In addition to having a higher incidence of comorbidities that are known risk factors for the disease such as hypertension and diabetes, this population is also disadvantaged in access to quality healthcare and education, and in socioeconomic status,” he says.

“But inherited factors are also known to affect someone’s risk for developing the disease. We are just beginning to understand how these genetic factors can differ based on a person’s ancestral backgrounds. Studies like this one, and even larger studies in the future, may help provide some answers.” 

Can I reduce my risk?

There are some risk factors for the disease that cannot be changed, such as genetics and age. But there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk. They include:

  • Exercising regularly.
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet.
  • Maintaining strong social connections.
  • Staying mentally active through reading, hobbies, and other forms of mental stimulation.
  • Avoiding head trauma that results from athletics or other risky activities.
  • Getting flu and pneumonia vaccinations as recommended by your health care provider. 

Further genetic research will be critical in the future to unlocking the mysteries surrounding Alzheimer’s disease.

“Larger studies with broad ancestral diversity are critical, and efforts are underway at the University of Miami to recruit more non-white participants into research studies,” Dr. Kunkle says. “We welcome participation in our studies as we try to better understand how genetics and environment affect risk for the disease.”

Wyatt Myers is a contributing writer for UMiami Health News.

Originally published on: December 02, 2020

Tags: Alzheimer's Disease, Dr. Brian Kunkle

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