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The Rising Rates of Dementia: UH Researchers Explore Its Impact and Warning Signs

Updated: Apr 19



For Immediate Release: April 16, 2024; Houston, Texas


On a global scale, a disquieting reality is set to unfold over the next two decades--more than 153 million could have dementia by 2050, according to the Lancet Public Health Journal. The number has tripled since 2019--a year when 57 million people experienced the devastating effects of dementia first-hand. In Lancet’s comprehensive analysis spanning 204 countries, there were four crucial risk factors, including smoking, obesity, high blood sugar, and low education. 


In Houston’s Third Ward, dementia is taking a significant toll on the congregation of Boynton Chapel United Methodist Church, according to Reverend Linda Davis.  


“In recent years, we have seen an increase in our congregation and surrounding community of persons who have been diagnosed with or are caregivers for loved ones with dementia and Alzheimer's,” Davis said.  “As these numbers continue to rise, it is Boynton’s desire to partner with organizations such as the University of Houston to offer resources and support for individuals in Houston’s Third Ward and other underserved communities.”  

The University of Houston is pioneering new research initiatives in dementia and Alzheimer’s studies, supporting researchers in their respective fields of expertise, including Stacey Gorniak, Ph.D. and neuropsychologist Luis D. Medina, Ph.D.  


Gorniak is spearheading a new research initiative which focuses on dementia in women. Funded with a $1.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, Gorniak is investigating why underrepresented, perimenopausal women with Type 2 Diabetes, and sleep apnea are at risk for developing dementia during their lifetime.   


“There is definitely an uptick in dementia cases,” Gorniak said. “This is not just in the U.S.; this is worldwide. We have more than 55 million people worldwide with diagnosed dementia. Every year, we’re seeing as many as 10 million new cases. Women are disproportionately impacted, both directly and indirectly. With women, they are not only predisposed to dementia, but they are also doing the caregiving work.” 


Gorniak underscores the importance of conducting this research at this critical juncture. The burden for care weighs heavily upon other family members who cannot work because of their caregiving responsibilities, Gorniak emphasized. 


“Dementia care in 2019 was $200 billion for direct medical care. In 2020, costs are estimated at $305 billion and costs are expected to increase to over $1.5 trillion in 2050,” Gorniak said. “Caregiving is typically informal—usually women, daughters who are taking care of family members. It only exacerbates the situation—women not being able to earn their own money, because they’re taking care of someone. It perpetuates the social determinants of health underlying many of these interrelated issues.” 


Gorniak’s objective in delving further into the confluence of factors which lead to dementia patients is to help families with early detection and preventative care.  


“The long-term goal is to impact clinical care and to have earlier diagnostics and earlier prevention care,” Gorniak said. “In most cases, dementia is diagnosed too late. When there is a diagnosis of dementia, then you get into very significant costs. I’m hoping we can do something to mitigate the impact of dementia earlier on.” 

Serving as a licensed clinical psychologist and cultural neuropsychologist, Medina works directly in the research spheres of cognitive aging and neurodegenerative disease, Alzheimer’s and related dementias, and brain health equity. Medina’s research explores the cultural neuroscience of cognitive aging within the context of Alzheimer’s and related dementia (ADRD). Medina also provides clinical assessment of ADRD in historically underrepresented populations. 


“The older we live, the more risk we have for Alzheimer's disease,” Medina said. “Because people are living longer, we are expecting the number of folks who have dementia to increase over the coming years. Additionally, we have some communities that are at increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Black American communities are about twice as much risk, and Hispanic Americans are at about 1.5 greater risk than non-Hispanic white Americans. Some are less likely to get diagnosed in a timely manner, less likely to receive treatment.” 


Medina added that the phenomenon of what occurs in the brain when dementia or Alzheimer’s sets in is complex and often occurs years before the actual onset. 


“The pathological changes related to dementia can happen up to decades before the first symptoms,” Medina said. “With dementia, there are distinct types of proteins that accumulate in the brain, and they start destroying the connections and communication between the brain cells. Depending upon where the damage starts happening, we can see various symptoms present early in the dementia process, such as changes in visual abilities, planning and organizing or personality.” 


Some of the early warning signs of dementia include difficulty completing tasks, short-term memory loss, and changes in mood, according to Medina. 


 “Dementia patients might experience problems with language, planning, organizing, changes in personality that are atypical for the individual, getting lost when they navigate, and visual-spatial orientation,” Medina said. Things that people have been doing for a long time now becoming challenging.” 

Medina underscored that there are definitive ways to improve brain health and potentially reduce the risk of dementia.  


“There are things that we can work on—heart healthy things like diet, exercise, stress management and reduction, sleep health, cognitive engagement which will keep the brain engaged,” Medina said. “These are good for our physical and social well-being--reduction of things like smoking. There’s some cool work on risk and resilience. What’s good for the heart is good for the brain, and these are the things that keep our brain active.” 


Medina uses the metaphor of protecting the brain, as though it was a fortified, well-constructed home.   


“I use the metaphor of the brain as a house,” Medina said. “So, Alzheimer’s disease or a related dementia is like a hurricane that comes towards the house. A house that has a solid roof, solid walls and solid windows will withstand that hurricane much better than a house with a tattered roof with weak foundation, thin walls and weak windows. There are various layers of protection.”  

When it comes to counseling strategies with family caretakers of dementia patients, Reverend Davis knows this first-hand. 


“First thing first, we talk to the family,” Davis said. “The family knows before you know. They know the mother, sister or niece and know when they begin to forget things or have problems with language. The family sees those signs.” 

 Davis has a loved one who was diagnosed with dementia. Witnessing the decline of her loved one has been a heartbreaking predicament. 


“She has always been a strong, independent woman who ran her own business,” Davis said. “Then, you could begin to see her inability to remember certain things. There were days when she would tell me, ‘Oh, I’m struggling with my memory.’ She understands her diagnosis, but she gets extremely agitated.”

 

A few of the tips Davis recommends which might help caregivers of dementia patients include a caregivers’ support group, asking for help when you need it and taking breaks each day.  


“It is important to look into support groups, especially when you have older people in the family,” Davis said. “If you have a family member who is showing signs of memory loss, just beware of signs. You know they were cognitively able to handle things, but now they are no longer able to do those things that they were handling before."


--Alison Medley 

If you would like more information about this topic, please contact Alison Medley at 713.320.0933 or email aemedle2@central.uh.edu 

 

 

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