Black seniors in Portland test reminiscing to guard against Alzheimer’s

The memory study in Portland, Ore., is part of a new and growing effort to unravel troubling disparities: Why do black seniors appear twice as likely as whites — and Hispanics 1½ times more likely than whites — to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementias?

Sharon Steen dons her tennis shoes and, with two fellow seniors, walks streets that in her youth were a vibrant center of Portland, Oregon’s African-American community. Wasn’t this the corner where an NAACP march began in 1963? Look, the record store is now a fancy high-rise.

It’s more than a stroll down memory lane. Steen enrolled in a small but unique study to see if jogging memories where they were made can help older African-Americans stay mentally sharp and slow early memory loss.

“What we find when we walk, all of us, is that there are a lot of things we haven’t had to remember, and that we can’t remember. And then as we walk and talk, the memories pop up and it’s reassuring that they’re still there,” Steen said.

It’s part of a new and growing effort to unravel troubling disparities: Why do black seniors appear twice as likely as whites — and Hispanics 1½ times — to develop Alzheimer’s and other dementias?

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A crucial first step is motivating more underrepresented populations to volunteer for research. African-Americans make up less than 5 percent of participants in studies of cognitive decline and dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Beyond possibly improving their own brain health, the Portland study’s enticement is a chance to help preserve community and cultural memories from historically black neighborhoods that are disappearing with gentrification.

“A lot of our wisdom and stories about what community means comes from our elders,” said Raina Croff, an assistant neurology professor at Oregon Health & Science University. She leads the SHARP study — it…

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