OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR

Heart Health, Black History Month and Brain Health: An Unlikely Connection

Two major advocacy campaigns are underway in February: Black History Month and Heart Health Month. While their connection to Alzheimer’s disease may not be obvious, each is vitally important.

Race, gender and cardiovascular disease are all closely tied to Alzheimer’s. Factors like hypertension, high cholesterol and diabetes have been linked to Alzheimer’s, and lifestyle changes that improve heart health — such as diet, exercise and smoking cessation — also reduce an individual’s risk for dementia. Heart and brain health are natural partners, as what’s good for the heart is also good for the brain. This is especially true for women, who statistically face a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s. By joining our messages, we double the motivation for making and maintaining healthy habits.

This need is most evident and pressing in the health disparities faced by women from minority communities. Currently, black women have the highest rates of diabetes and high blood pressure of any demographic group, increasing their risk for heart disease and dementia. Partly due to these factors, African-Americans are twice as likely to develop Alzheimer’s as non-Hispanic whites, and Latinos are 1.5 times as likely.

Yet, scientific research and healthcare services often ignore these disparities. Effective advocacy requires that we spotlight them and call for a coordinated, comprehensive response.

After years of hard work, women have brought their heart health to the public’s attention — we must do the same for our brains. And we must honor and continue the legacy of civil rights, by fighting against the disproportionate impact of Alzheimer’s and heart disease on African-American women, Latino women and others.

Inclusive scientific research is central to addressing health inequalities. We need to ensure an appropriate research focus on these disparities so we can achieve progress in addressing the unique health challenges of women and minorities. Three advocacy objectives are essential:

  • We must demand that sex-based studies become a research priority. Gender is a critical factor in complex diseases like Alzheimer’s. Yet, few scientific studies or clinical trials examine sex-based differences in Alzheimer’s or heart health, and many don’t report their findings differentiated by gender. Failure to do so limits scientific progress and ignores the reality that two-thirds of those with Alzheimer’s are women. We must drive funding for sex-based research, which leverages sex difference as an insight and advantage, not a barrier. 
  • We must insist on inclusive, diverse clinical trials. According to the Food and Drug Administration, African-Americans account for just 5 percent of clinical trial participants, even though they represent 12 percent of the U.S. population. And though Hispanics comprise 16 percent of the total population, they represent just 1 percent of trial participants. These glaring disparities skew scientific research findings and can limit the efficacy of treatments for minority populations. Advocacy organizations, government agencies and researchers must engage with these communities to boost their participation in trials, especially in disease areas with high unmet need such as Alzheimer’s. 
  • We must eliminate systemic barriers at every stage of the biomedical process. Though we have moved towards gender parity in biomedical research, many institutional barriers remain. For example, gaps persist in key sub-fields like mixed-sex cardiovascular trials, where only a third of participants are women. And many basic science and preclinical studies primarily use male cells and animals, warping the research process from the outset. We must identify and remove these entrenched barriers, maximizing benefits for both men and women.

These changes would refocus biomedical and scientific research to fight the unjust health burden that minority communities and women currently endure. Over time, this would empower women with the knowledge, risk reduction strategies and treatment options to effectively manage the linked problems of heart disease and Alzheimer’s. We rarely think of the brain as an organ, like the heart or the liver, but it is – and promoting brain health requires a higher level of research and awareness.

Black History Month and Heart Health Month provide opportunities to recognize and address the uneven causes and impacts of Alzheimer’s. Together, our voices can drive sweeping change. We won’t wait to transform research, clinical trials and biomedical processes for women and minority communities. We hope you will join us.

Jill Lesser is president of WomenAgainstAlzheimer’s, a network of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, and has been a caregiver for the past nine years to her mother, Barbara Lesser, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Stephanie Monroe is executive director of AfricanAmericansAgainstAlzheimer’s, an UsAgainstAlzheimer’s network and the first national network created specifically to respond to Alzheimer’s disease and its disparate impact on African Americans.

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