Memory and aging is often misunderstood. While dementia is never part of the normal aging experience, some age-related brain changes are. Tip of the tongue moments increase. For example, someone may forget the name of the movie he saw over the weekend and remember it an hour later. Benign senescence occurs. Reflex and reaction times diminish. Many African American seniors worry when they experience these changes because they automatically jump to the conclusion that they are suffering from dementia.

Dementia is not part of the normal aging process. It is a collection of symptoms including short term memory loss, confusion, getting lost in familiar places and even personality changes. Forgetting a granddaughter’s name, getting lost on the way home from the local grocery store, or not remembering how to use a fork can be examples of dementia symptoms.

While most people automatically think of irreversible conditions when they hear the term “dementia”, less people realize that these symptoms can be sometimes caused by temporary reversible conditions. Temporary causes of dementia include depression, medication side effects, dehydration and urinary tract infections. Alzheimer’s disease accounts for approximately 70% of all permanent dementia diagnoses. Other causes of permanent dementia symptoms include Parkinson’s disease, Lewy Body disease, vascular dementia and Pick’s disease. When dementia symptoms are suspected, it is important to get a proper diagnosis with a qualified physician experienced with seniors such as a geriatrician, neurologist or geriatric psychiatrist.

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States. There is still so much we are learning about Alzheimer’s disease but current research suggests there are five major risk factors. The traits most associated with the condition are having heart disease, diabetes, a major head injury, a family history of Alzheimer’s disease and getting older.

What can African Americans do to prevent an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis? Since African Americans tend to experience heart disease and diabetes more frequently than the rest of the population, they should do everything in their power to prevent these conditions. If they are afflicted with one of these conditions, doing everything possible to minimize complications may reduce Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses. Eating a balanced diet, maintaining a healthy weight, exercising, getting enough sleep, and perhaps most importantly reducing stress are demonstrated ways to reduce the incidence of heart disease and diabetes. This, in turn, will reduce the risk for Alzheimer’s disease.

Preventing a head injury is another important defense against Alzheimer’s disease. Wearing seatbelts when riding in a car, donning a helmet when cycling or playing sports such as football, and avoiding physical altercations where head injuries are possible are good strategies.

Age and family history are risk factors that we should be aware of but not ones that we can control. Advanced age is a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease just as it is for many conditions such as several types of cancer or arthritis. The older a person is, the more at risk he or she becomes.

Family history of a first-degree blood relative (mother, father, brother or sister) is the final risk factor. But it may be worthwhile to investigate any family lore about previous generations. If Grandma had memory issues, was it truly Alzheimer’s disease? Was she properly diagnosed or were assumptions made because she had benign senescence? It is important to be as aware of family history as possible without worrying too much about it. After all, this is a factor that nobody can control.

African American caregivers are more likely than their Caucasian counterparts to care for loved ones with Alzheimer’s disease at home. It is critical that they understand the impact of caregiver stress which can significantly increase health problems, including heart disease and diabetes. African American caregivers can minimize such risks by asking for help from friends and family and turning to some of these valuable community resources:

www.n4a.org links caregivers to local city and county Area Agencies on Aging which share information about free and low-cost services that can help caregivers.
www.alz.org links caregivers to support groups, Safe Return program for wanderers, educational and respite services for those dealing with permanent dementia diagnoses.
www.nadsa.org links caregivers to adult day care centers in the community.
www.caregiver.org has a state guide & Family Care Navigator that helps families learn about local laws that support caregivers and helpful resources.
www.caremanager.org links caregivers to private geriatric care managers, typically nurses and social workers, who assist with managing care of an older loved one.

Mature market expert and gerontologist Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C.
Jennifer FitzPatrick, MSW, LCSW-C, CSP is a speaker and consultant on age diversity, older customers, caregiving & dementia. She is the President of Jenerations Health Education & an Instructor at Johns Hopkins University. For more information please visit www.jenerationshealth.com.

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