Dr. Paul Newhouse

By Ashley Benkarski

NASHVILLE, TN — Alzheimer’s Disease and related dementias disproportionately affect the Black community, and more consideration is being given to this disparity among researchers. But traditionally low participation rates in clinical research trials and biases among medical professionals have given an incomplete picture of results.

“The question of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease in the African American community is a very serious issue,” said Dr. Paul Newhouse, M.D., Director of the Center for Cognitive Medicine at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

“This is an unusual paradox we’re in,” he said. “We don’t know as much as we should, but why don’t we know as much as we should? [It’s] because we haven’t successfully encouraged people of color to participate [in clinical trials for Alzheimer’s and dementia]. I think that we’ve realized the problem that we’re in and we need to break out of that vicious circle, and I think that’s where we’re going now.”

The lack of trust from communities of color toward the medical community due to a history of mistreatment, abuse and malpractice from the latter isn’t lost on Dr. Newhouse. “We want to build a relationship of trust and of concern, and offer the community something of value to them. We have to work on that, there’s no question about it.”

National statistics, on average, have reported that Black patients are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease or related dementias. But Dr. Newhouse said the reasons for this are complex for three reasons, the first being that Black participants tend to come in after the more advanced stages of cognitive decline appear. Second, Black participants are also disproportionately affected by health issues that contribute to the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia, such as diabetes and hypertension, especially when left uncontrolled. 

Lastly, the prevailing belief that memory loss and dementia isa normal part of aging. “These are concepts that we [the larger medical community] haven’t worked as hard to combat in those communities as we need to,” Dr. Newhouse explained. “We may need to fine-tune our education efforts so that people bring their seniors to us at an earlier stage . . . It’s normal aging if you get gray hair or if you have creaky joints, but losing your memory shouldn’t be a normal part of aging and we have to help people recognize that. And I think it’s going to become even more important over the next few years because we’re going to hopefully have treatments that could prevent it, or even slow it down, and I think that’s very exciting.”

So what should people look for in their aging family members? Increased forgetfulness (forgetting information faster than they were before), having trouble keeping track of things or managing everyday affairs, such as keeping up a checkbook or regularly taking medications, or difficulty with complex tasks. 

Further, Dr. Newhouse said, be aware of the risk factors that can lead to or accelerate Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias, such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, uncontrolled diabetes and lack of physical activities.

For more information on open clinical trials visit Vanderbilt’s Center for Cognitive Medicine online at https://www.vumc.org/ccm/.