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Study says blacks, Hispanics more likely to get Alzheimer's

doctor and patient
Dr. Richard Mayeux examines an elderly patient  

In this report:

March 10, 1998
Web posted at: 10:00 p.m. EST (0300 GMT)

CHICAGO (CNN) -- A study has found that blacks and Hispanics may run a higher risk than whites of getting Alzheimer's disease, although it is not clear why.

"Our results suggest that as African-Americans and Hispanics age, the frequency of Alzheimer's disease in those populations may increase disproportionately," says the study from the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York.

The report, published in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a study of 1,079 elderly white, black and Hispanic Medicare recipients whose health histories were followed for six years.

The researchers said blacks and Hispanics with a previously identified gene mutation known as the apolipoprotein-e gene were as likely as whites with the same gene mutation to develop Alzheimer's disease.

But they said blacks who did not carry the gene were four times more likely than whites to develop the disease by age 90, and that Hispanics without the gene were twice as likely as whites to develop the disease by age 90.

"These results suggest that other genes or risk factors may contribute to the increased risk of Alzheimer's disease in African-Americans and Hispanics," the study said.

Alzheimer's disease is the most frequent cause of progressive mental decline in the elderly. Nearly 10 percent of all Americans will develop the disease by the time they reach 65, and 40 percent will have the disease by the time the reach 80.

Findings 'provocative and exciting'

Assessing groups that are at risk is important when treating a disease, experts say, so that prevention programs and treatment can begin early.

"As therapies become more and more available, and as we get better and better at designing ways to prevent the disease, it will be even more critical to identify at risk," says Dr. Richard Mayeux of Columbia University.

Mayeux says the study is especially important because blacks and Hispanics are "the most rapidly increasing group of elderly in the U.S. So in the future, we're going to have to figure out ways to predict who's going to develop the disease in those groups."

In an editorial in the same publication, commenting on the study, experts at the University of Washington in Seattle called the findings "provocative and exciting."

They said few other studies have addressed the question of Alzheimer's incidence in this way and the conclusion that the incidence varies by race and ethnicity could have important implications for understanding how the disease develops.

"Further independent replication of these findings is necessary before any definitive conclusions can be made ..." they added. "Nonetheless, the results ... should definitely spur further research in this relatively under-studied area."

Medical Correspondent Dr. Steve Salvatore and Reuters contributed to this report.


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